Expect to hear more about Gareth Bale and Real Madrid


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.

Conte: My Chelsea will never play for a draw, home or away

HULL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 01:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts to his team scoring during the Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KCOM Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte knows what he’s doing — he’s playing the game made popular the world over by his predecessor and Sunday opponent, Jose Mourinho, and so many others who went before him.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Where other managers shy away from the controversy and the spotlight brought upon themselves by the psychological warfare waged by so many of the giants of the managerial profession, Conte has embraced the added attention he’ll now face when Chelsea host Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

While Mourinho hasn’t been quiet in the build-up to his return to Stamford Bridge — how could he, given the considerable demand for comment? — he has mostly kept the cheap shots to himself and attempted to treat the affair like any other. Of course, it’s not that for him; for the Chelsea fans; for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who made the decision to fire Mourinho 10 months ago; and now, for Conte, who’s suddenly thrust onto the other side of the battlefield ahead of Mourinho’s grudge match — quotes from Goal.com:

“No, I think it is always right to play for a win. I try to transfer these thoughts to my players always. If you play at home or away, it must be the same.

“You must start the game with only one target: to win. Not to play for a draw. I don’t like this. It is not football. I don’t like this.”

“I think it is important to win, but for me also, it is important to win in the right way. Because, sometimes, it happened to me. I won in the past with other clubs, but I wasn’t satisfied with the performance.

“When you win is important, but it is important to also play good football, to play with a good intensity, to show always the will to win, the passion. For me, that’s important.”

The obvious inference here is that Mourinho’s teams have always been set out to play in a defensive manner — often times aiming for, or, at the very least, achieving 0-0 draws — something the Portuguese did earlier this week, away to Liverpool.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Conte didn’t ask to be the anti-Mourinho when he was named Chelsea’s new boss — not directly so, at least — but it comes as part of the territory when taking over from a mountain of a manager like Mourinho. Cool as ever, Conte is relishing his new role.

Introducing Zabivaka, Russia’s 2018 World Cup mascot

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Official Mascot Wolf was chosen as Official Mascot of FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia and Nazario Ronaldo during 'Vecherniy Urgant' (Evening Urgant) TV show on Channel 1 at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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MOSCOW (AP) Russia has chosen a cocky wolf wearing sporty goggles as the mascot for the 2018 football World Cup.

The wolf was chosen in online voting over two other mascot candidates — a cat and a tiger wearing a space suit.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

The announcement was made early Saturday at the end of an hour-long broadcast on state Channel One television. More than 1 million Russians voted in the contest, according to the broadcast.

World Cup matches are to take place in 11 cities in June and July 2018. The venues are in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Saransk, Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Yekaterinburg.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Wolf, the winer of FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Official Mascot, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vitaly Mutko, TV host Ivan Urgant and Nazario Ronaldo attend at 'Vecherniy (Evening) Urgant' TV show on Channel 1 during at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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Aguero looking vulnerable as Man City evolves under Guardiola

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 15:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City shows dejection after the final whistle during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Everton at Etihad Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Manchester City’s spine of goalkeeper Joe Hart, center back Vincent Kompany, midfielder Yaya Toure and striker Sergio Aguero has anchored the team since 2011 in the most decorated period in its history.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

One by one, it is being dismantled by Pep Guardiola.

Hart has been sent out on loan to Italy.

The injury-hampered Kompany no longer appears first choice.

Toure has been ostracized.

And the seemingly unthinkable is happening: Aguero is coming under pressure for his place.

Aguero started on the bench for the English Premier League game against Everton on Saturday after playing two matches for Argentina during the international break. More surprisingly, he stayed among the substitutes for the Champions League match at Barcelona on Wednesday, when Guardiola preferred to play midfielder Kevin De Bruyne up front.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Aguero has been untouchable, a guaranteed starter since joining from Atletico Madrid in July 2011. Suddenly, possibly the most popular player among City fans – and a scorer of 102 league goals in his first five seasons at the club – is vulnerable and seemingly dispensable, even if he is likely to regain his place for the Premier League match against Southampton on Sunday.

When asked if Aguero was being phased out, Guardiola said on Friday the player’s future was at City.

“When Sergio decides to leave Manchester City, it will be his decision,” Guardiola said. Then, echoing comments he made about Hart in August before allowing him to leave, Guardiola added: “I appreciate him (as) a football player. I appreciate (as) a man what he did here.”

It’s not just the recent selection decisions that hint at a sense of unease between Guardiola and Aguero.

Guardiola has said publicly on at least two occasions this season that he wants more from Aguero than just goals, just like he wanted more from Hart than simply making saves. After Aguero’s hat trick in the Champions League win over Borussia Moenchengladbach, Guardiola said: “I cannot teach him (about his talent in the penalty box) but he has to know that behind, the rest of the team wants to help him and that is what I want to convince him.”

While on international duty with Argentina this month, Aguero was quoted as telling Argentine media that Guardiola “is very picky about everything, (and) it’s good.

“The good thing is that I’m getting used to him and automatically going straight into pressing the centre backs.”

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL preview — Mourinho back at the Bridge; City-Saints ]

Aguero, who is contracted to City until 2020, has 11 goals in 10 appearances this season, and 19 in his last 20 dating to last season. There are few better, attainable strikers around and it will be intriguing to see how the situation pans out, especially with Brazil forward Gabriel Jesus due to arrive in December to provide competition up front.

Guardiola said on Friday he had no regrets about his decision to drop Aguero for the Barcelona game, which City lost 4-0 after having goalkeeper Claudio Bravo red-carded. That made it four games without a win for Guardiola, and a failure to beat Southampton would equal the longest streak without a victory in his coaching career.

In an answer that lasted more than 6 1/2 minutes on Friday, he defended his tactics at Camp Nou and praised the personality of his young players like John Stones and De Bruyne.

Guardiola repeated he will not change his style.

“I think about that, yes,” he said. “But after that, the solution is not better than what I believe. So I cannot. Do you know why as well? Because in seven years (at Barcelona and Bayern Munich), I won 21 titles. … So it’s three titles per year playing in that way.

“No, no, I’m not going to change. First, it’s going to happen that (if) it’s not going well in the future, next season isn’t going well in that way, I will go home.”

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Messi wins it late for Barca; AC Milan shock Juve

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates with his team mates as Neymar Jr. and Luis Suarez reacts on the pitch after being hit by objects thrown from the seats after scoring his team's third from the penalty spot during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Valencia 2-3 Barcelona

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez led Barcelona back from 2-1 down to take all three points at the Mestalla Stadium and reclaim the top spot in La Liga. There’s lots to unpack here, beginning with the nasty tackle that’ll keep Andres Iniesta (knee ligament damage) out of action for up to two months. Then there was the controversial fashion in which Messi gave Barca an early lead.

Valencia hit back twice before Suarez drew the visitors level again, and Messi converted from the penalty spot in the 93rd minute to seal the victory, at which point Neymar was hit by a bottle thrown onto the field by someone in the stands. In the end, Barca are back on top, until Real Madrid are allowed to have their say on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Espanyol 3-3 Eibar
Real Sociedad 3-0 Alaves
Granada 0-0 Sporting Gijon

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Celta Vigo vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Sevilla vs. Atletico Madrid — 10:15 a.m. ET
Malaga vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Villarreal vs. Las Palmas — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

AC Milan 1-0 Juventus

The kids are (a whole lot more than) alright at AC Milan. 18-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli unleashed a stunning strike in the 65th minute, as Milan shocked the world by upsetting the five-time (and six-time, presumably) defending champions, Juventus, at the San Siro. Then it was 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma’s turn to play his part, in the form of a stunning save to deny Sami Khedira an equalizer with the last kick of the game.

Juve remain top of the Serie A table, but it’s Milan who now sit second, just two points behind them.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sampdoria 2-1 Genoa

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Udinese vs. Pescara — 6:30 a.m. ET
Torino vs. Lazio — 9 a.m. ET
Atalanta vs. Inter Milan — 9 a.m. ET
Cagliari vs. Fiorentina — 9 a.m. ET
Crotone vs. Napoli — 9 a.m. ET
Empoli vs. Chievo — 9 a.m. ET
Bologna vs. Sassuoo — 12 p.m. ET
Roma vs. Palermo — 2:45 p.m. ET