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Gareth Bale-to-Real Madrid: Where will he play?

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There’s a symbiosis to Isco scoring twice on the day Gareth Bale’s move was confirmed. The 21-year-old Spanish international, bought from Málaga this summer, has been Real Madrid’s best player through three rounds, posting a double today against Athletic Bilbao. His three goals are not only tied for Spain’s lead but also assuage any doubts he’ll be a regular for Carlo Ancelotti. Although it looked like he would battle for time when purchased in June, he’s successfully pushed Argentine international Ángel Di María out of the XI, perhaps a more impressive feat than his fast start.

Bale’s arrival doesn’t change that, and you can be sure Cristiano Ronaldo’s time won’t be compromised by the arrival of another Premier League import. Instead, it’s striker Karim Benzema who might lose time if Real Madrid embrace the much-speculated false nine that’s been rumored all summer. Or, and perhaps most remarkably, Mesut Özil – a player so important to how the team’s played since he arrived from Werder Bremen – could either lose time or, if you believe the more sensational rumors, find himself in London, Milan, or Paris.

Each option leaves us was a drastically different Real Madrid.

STATUS QUO IF ÖZIL GOES

The idea of Özil moving is confounding. You just don’t sell great players merely because you acquire other talent. Adding Bale at the expense of the German international  would change the team but not necessarily improve it. Potentially, Real could end up worse.

An attacking line of Ronaldo, Bale, and Isco behind Benzema could be seen as more powerful than last year’s three (Özil, Di María joining Ronaldo), but Madrid’s sacrificing creativity, versatility, and potentially balance. Against most of their opposition, that sacrifice won’t matter, but against elites, gambling Isco can replace Özil while sacrificing Di Maria’s more all-around game puts all of Real’s eggs in one basket. Either Ronaldo and Bale can power through the opposition, or Real’s stuck.

Di Maria is still in Madrid, though, as is Luka Modric, who offers some of the creativity of Özil (if in different ways and places). Real Madrid will have more than one dimension. But incorporating Bale in a way that sacrifices one of Isco or Özil means Real Madrid will change how they play. Perhaps that’s the point, but if Bale’s acquisition paved the road for Özil’s departure, that’s a significant drawback to acquiring the Welch international.

FALSE NINES, 4-2-4-0s, AND MEMORIES OF MANCHESTER UNITED

If, however, Bale’s acquisition means Karim Benzema becomes a Di Maria, Modric-esque change-up off the bench, Bale’s acquisition is a lot more intriguing.

Ever since the former Spur’s link to Madrid really heated up 726 months ago (perhaps fewer), many have speculated Madrid would start employing a false nine – a system some thought would help them match up with Barcelona. With two goal scorers (Ronaldo, Bale) matched with two creators (Isco, Özil), Real would have a versatile foursome to play above Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso. Each of them could conceivably play across the width of the pitch, while Ronaldo and Bale would also be able to play higher or through the middle, should in-game adjustments be necessary. Özil could also drop back into a three-man midfield, should a 4-3-3 become desirable.

Given Benzema has never truly held down the number nine’s role, the theory made some sense, especially if being able to add another player to midfield (crowding opponents) is deemed a necessity. At least, all the pieces fit.

But in the wake of Real confirming Bale’s move, more-and-more speculation hints at Özil’s departure, which is a shame. For Real Madrid fans, the loss of one of the world’s best number 10s will take the luster off their new signing. For the rest of us, we’ll miss out on a chance to see what would have been one of the most interesting tactics in recent time, one that perhaps eclipses Manchester United’s attempts to get Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and Dimitar Berbatov clicking together four years ago.

Let’s just hope, after signing Bale, Real Madrid elects to hold on to the rest of their core talent.

Ranieri criticizes Leicester for lacking “desire and heart”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City looks dejected during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Millwall and Leicester City at The Den on February 18, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri criticized his players for lacking “desire and heart” in a 1-0 loss at third-tier Millwall in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday, the latest setback for the stuttering English champion.

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

Leicester, which is one point above the relegation zone in a woeful defense of its Premier League title, is without a victory in its last eight matches.

Millwall played most of the second half with 10 men and won thanks to a 90th-minute goal.

“I want to speak again with the players and say we have to fight every match,” an animated Ranieri said. “Who wants to fight? Tell me. I need the soldiers, I need the gladiators.

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

“It is strange because last season we won for this, to be more determined than the opponent and play with more heart than the opponent. We could also lose but we would fight every match. I want to see this, the fight until the end.”

Leicester’s next match is against Sevilla in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday.

FOLLOW LIVE: Spurs, Man United away in FA Cup 5th round

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates after scoring his third and his sides third goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-rounders served up the biggest Cupset of them all — fifth-division side Lincoln City knocking off Burnley of the Premier League — as well as two moderately shocking results — Leicester City losing to 10-man Millwall (League One) and Manchester City drawing 0-0 with Huddersfield Town (Championship).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Sunday’s FA Cup 5th-rounders ]

On Sunday, two more of the PL’s big boys hope to avoid upsets and reach the quarterfinals of the 2016-17 tournament. First up, Tottenham Hotspur visit Fulham’s Craven Cottage in a renewed London derby, followed by Manchester United’s trip to Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park. For live scores and updates, hit the above link, or click right here.

Saturday’s FA Cup 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

Sunday’s FA Cup schedule

Fulham vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 9 a.m. ET
Blackburn Rovers vs. Manchester United — 11:15 a.m. ET

Monday’s FA Cup schedule

Sutton United vs. Arsenal — 2:55 p.m. ET

Report: AC Milan negotiating new deal for keeper Donnaumma

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Gianluigi Donnarumma has quickly become one of the most coveted goalkeepers in the world, and he’s only 17 years old.

[ MORE: Gameiro nets hat-trick in five minutes for Atletico ]

And that’s why AC Milan plans on doing everything in its power to hold on to the Italy international.

[ MORE: U.S. U-20s fall to Panama to begin CONCACAF Championship ]

According to CalcioMercato, the Rossoneri are preparing to lock up Donnarumma to a big deal once he turns 18 next week in order to fend off the likes of Premier League duo Chelsea and Manchester United, as well as Real Madrid.

However, agent Mino Raiola could stand in the way of Milan as they attempt to negotiate with the promising shot stopper out of fear that the club won’t be able to compete with Europe’s best teams.

Also, it has been suggested that Raiola is seeking at least $4.25 million per season for Donnarumma plus add ons, while Milan is said to be willing to go as high as $2.1 million annually.

Donnarumma is currently in his second professional season with Milan and has risen to the Italian national team level over the past year as well. The young keeper is seen as the logical successor to Gianluigi Buffon once his international career concludes.

Baggio marks 50th birthday by visiting quake victims

ROME, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 01: Roberto Baggio (L) is challenged by Diego Lugano during the Interreligious Match For Peace at Olimpico Stadium on September 1, 2014 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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AMATRICE, Italy (AP) Italian great Roberto Baggio marked his 50th birthday on Saturday by visiting towns devastated by earthquakes last year.

[ MORE: FA Cup Saturday wrap — Man City held against Huddersfield ]

Baggio opted not to celebrate his milestone surrounded by celebrities, and instead spent the day in Amatrice, which was almost wiped out by the Aug. 24 earthquake.

The former world footballer of the year, who met children and others from the central Italy region, said “it was very emotional,” and he went there with his family “to fully understand what so many people are going through.”

Baggio also met the mayor of Amatrice, Sergio Pirozzi, and said they will remain in contact, “and we will try to do something concrete.”

Baggio was moving on to nearby Norcia, which was also damaged, and there was a party organized with a birthday cake.

The Aug. 24 quake killed nearly 300 people and left a further 4,000 homeless. There were aftershocks for several days as well as more quakes in October and January.

Baggio, who was nicknamed “Il Divin Codino” (The Divine Ponytail) for the hairstyle he wore for most of his career, scored 27 goals in 57 appearances for Italy and helped the Azzurri to third place in the 1990 World Cup and runner-up four years later, when he famously missed the last penalty kick of the shootout in the final with Brazil.

He won the Serie A title with Juventus in 1995 and with AC Milan the following year.