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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.

Xavi backs Dybala, Verratti to succeed at Barcelona over Pogba

TURIN, ITALY - JANUARY 24:  Paulo Dybala (R) of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal with team mate Paul Pogba during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and AS Roma at Juventus Arena on January 24, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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With Paul Pogba linked with a possible summer move to Barcelona worth more than $100 million, one legend at Camp Nou believes Pogba may not be the right signing.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

After making more than 700 appearances for Barcelona, Xavi knows the club as well as anyone, and he prefers Pogba’s Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala for a move to the Catalan giants.

Xavi also praised the play of Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, saying that while Pogba is a star player, Dybala and Verratti have “Barca DNA.”

There’s two players I really like, both of whom I think have Barca’s DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala.

They are amazing and, thanks to their quality and style of play, would easily integrate into the [Barca] machine. I see them as future stars at the club.

[Pogba] is a great player. He’ll be a star for France as he is for Juve, but I see him with a different game to ours.

Both Pogba and Dybala are 22-years-old, while Verratti is 23. All three players have been among the elite young talents in the world, with Pogba earning the most praise of the group and always linked with a big-money move to Europe’s top clubs.

[ RELATED: Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career ]

Dybala is enjoying a breakout season at Juventus, currently with 13 goals and eight assists in Serie A play. In Paris, Verratti is part of a PSG side that hasn’t lost in 25 matches and holds a 24-point lead at the top of the table.

Vincent Kompany set to make Manchester City return this weekend

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Manchester, England.
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Vincent Kompany is set to make his first appearance for Manchester City since Boxing Day as the defender has returned from injury.

City’s captain and center-back missed more than six weeks with a calf injury before Christmas, and then reaggravated the injury just minutes into his return at the end of December.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

However, Kompany has been back in training and manager Manuel Pellegrini said he is fit to play this weekend when City host Tottenham in a huge top-four matchup.

We’ll see what the starting XI is tomorrow – we’re not just thinking about one player and one game, we’re involved in a lot of competitions. Maybe we have a lot of criticism when we don’t play well but I’m happy with the squad over the whole season.

Every player must play a game when they’re 100%. Vincent has worked for three weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes in a friendly game against the under-21s and I think he’s ready to play.

Kompany’s presence in the City back-line has been pivotal this season. In the eight Premier League games Kompany has started, City have kept seven clean sheets. In the 18 matches without the big Belgian in the starting lineup, City have kept just five.

[ RELATED: Diego Costa suffers broken nose in Chelsea training ]

With City just a point behind Tottenham, Kompany returns from injury just in time for one of the biggest matches of the season. Tasked with slowing down Harry Kane and Spurs’ high-flying attack, Kompany’s play could prove crucial to the Citizens getting a result.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

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  • CFC unbeaten under Hiddink (W5, D6)
  • Newcastle have just 6 away goals all season
  • Diego Costa: 6 goals in his last 7 PL matches

Chelsea look to extend their unbeaten streak under Guus Hiddink to 12 matches on Saturday when the Blues host relegation-threatened Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

The Blues’ last loss came under Jose Mourinho in December.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Chelsea are up to 13th on the table, currently riding a run of 11 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Guus Hiddink is yet to suffer a loss after taking over for his second stint at Stamford Bridge in December, although draws have kept Chelsea from climbing further up the table. Diego Costa has had the hot-hand with six goals in his last seven appearances, but the Spanish striker will be forced to play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in training.

[ MORE: Hiddink has “no fear” of playing youngsters in Zouma’s absence ]

For Newcastle, the Magpies sit 17th on the table just one point above the drop. Their away form has hurt the club all season, as Steve McClaren‘s men have scored a league-low six goals on the road this year. The Magpies are coming off of a win over West Brom, and supporters will be hoping the club’s new January signings continue to produce. Seydou Doumbia could make his Premier League debut on Saturday, which would be a massive boost to the attack.

What they’re saying

Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink: “The status of being unbeaten sounds good but realistically we would have wished to have more victories, especially at home. And we have an opportunity to do so against Newcastle. They improved their squad with substance, some good signings, and they are more competitive now.”

Newcastle boss Steve McClaren: “In our home games we are starting to get a consistency in our performance and the way we play. We need to start transferring that to our away games and picking up points away from home – we owe it to the fans.”

Prediction

Newcastle have just two wins in their last 18 league matches away from home, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend. Chelsea have looked a new team with Guus Hiddink in charge, and they stay unbeaten under the Dutchman. Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United.

Pochettino enjoying best spell of career ahead of massive clash at Man City

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Mauricio Pochettino (R) Manager of Tottenham Hotspur is seen on arrival at the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.

The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.

When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”

[ MORE: Who are the Premier League title favorites? ]

Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.

Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.