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.

STREAM LIVE: Liverpool host Crystal Palace at Anfield

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Liverpool welcome Crystal Palace to Anfield on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Jurgen Klopp‘s men aiming to boost their top four hopes.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

With Arsenal and Manchester City playing in the FA Cup semifinal this game represents a good opportunity for Liverpool to extend their lead in the race for a top four finish but they have lost each of their last two home games against Palace in the PL. The Eagles need another big win after relegation rivals Hull and Swansea both won on Saturday.

In team news Liverpool look to be starting Wijnaldum out wide, while Palace have to reshuffled their defense with Mamadou Sakho unable to play against his parent club.

LINEUPS

Liverpool: Mignolet, Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner, Lucas, Can, Wijnaldum, Coutinho, Firmino, Origi. Subs: Karius, Gomez, Grujic, Moreno, Brewster, Woodburn, Alexander-Arnold

Crystal Palace: Hennessey; Ward, Kelly, Tomkins, Schlupp; Cabaye, Milivojevic; Townsend, Puncheon, Zaha; Benteke. Subs: Speroni, Van Aanholt, Delaney, Flamini, McArthur, Sako, Campbell

Burnley 0-2 Man United: Top four hopes alive

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  • United unbeaten in 23 PL games
  • Red Devils one point off top four
  • Martial, Rooney on target in first half
  • Burnley five points off bottom three

An injury-hit Manchester United beat Burnley 2-0 at Turf Moor on Sunday to keep their hopes of a top four finish well and truly alive.

First half goals from the excellent Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney did the damage as Jose Mourinho’s men go into Thursday’s Manchester derby against City just one point and one place behind their crosstown rivals.

With the win United move on to 63 points, while Burnley remain on 36 and are just five points above the relegation zone after another inept display in attack.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Early on United missed a massive chance as Anthony Martial’s surge into the box found Ander Herrera and he fed the ball to Rooney but he couldn’t trouble Tom Heaton from close range.

Marouane Fellaini then had a free header from a corner but nodded it down straight at Heaton who again saved from close range.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Rooney then sent a cross inches over the bar as United hit Burnley on the counter and that was to become a theme of the game. On the next counter Martial broke, played a one-two with Herrera and the Frenchman finished superbly to make it 1-0.

Before half time Ben Mee went close to getting on the end of Robbie Brady‘s free kick but then Rooney made it 2-0 as good build up play from Paul Pogba set in Martial and his shot deflected off Heaton and straight to Rooney who nudged the ball over the line.

Andre Gray then had a shot deflected wide as Burnley always looked dangerous from set pieces but United were clinical.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

In the second half United stayed solid and Pogba had a rasping drive pushed away by Heaton.

The home side failed to create any real clear cut chances with Michael Keane heading across goal but nobody was attacking the second ball.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Late on Marcus Rashford, on as a sub, raced clear and forced Heaton into a fine stop at his near post as United ran out comfortable winners but Pogba limping off in the 90th minute will leave Mourinho concerned about even more injuries to his squad.

Lazio’s Keita scores five-minute hat trick in rout

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Keita Balde Diao had himself a day on Sunday.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule

Within five minutes he scored three times to put Lazio 5-0 up against Palermo in Serie A after Ciro Immobile had scored twice in two minutes to put them 2-0 up after just nine minutes at the Stadio Olimpico.

The Eagles scored with all five of their opening shots against Palermo to lead 5-0 after just 26 minutes.

Watch the video of Keita’s remarkable hat trick below as the Senegalese forward, like his team, is on fire.


Keita makes it 3-0 in 21st minute…

Keita makes it 4-0 in 24th minute…

Keita makes it 5-0 in 26th minute…

LIVE – Arsenal v. Man City in FA Cup semifinal

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Arsenal and Manchester City clash in an FA Cup semifinal on Sunday at Wembley which promises to be a case of all-out attack.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola met earlier this month with their teams drawing 2-2 at the Emirates Stadium in an end-to-end encounter.

The winner of this semifinal will play Chelsea in the FA Cup final on May 27 at Wembley after Antonio Conte‘s side beat Tottenham 4-2 on Saturday.

In team news Arsenal stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation they used at Middlesbrough with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil off Olivier Giroud.

City line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sergio Aguero up top and Leroy Sane, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne off him.

Click on the link above to follow live coverage of what promises to be an entertaining semifinal, while here at Pro Soccer Talk we will have plenty more reaction and analysis after the game too.