Gareth Bale

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Would James Rodriguez fit in at Man United?

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The James Rodriguez to Manchester United reports are gathering pace but before we get carried away, would he actually be a good signing for Jose Mourinho?

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James, 25, has been on the outside looking in all season at Real Madrid but when you have Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and others ahead of you, that doesn’t mean you are a bad player.

The captain of Colombia is obviously one of the finest forwards around but after moving to Real in 2014 from AS Monaco for $88.5 million, he has failed to really make his mark at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Will his style of play not only fit at Manchester United but also the Premier League?

There’s no doubt James’ combination of pace and trickery would slot in well in the PL but there should be huge question marks around whether or not United need another deep-lying attacking midfielder. James is capable of playing out on the wing or just off a striker and that means he could partner Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial in a tricky attacking front three.

Rashford could lead the line in that trio, but then what does Mourinho do with Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Henrikh Mkhitaryan?

It’s likely Rooney will move on but if the Red Devils do qualify for the UEFA Champions League (reports state he will only join if United are in the UCL) then having James around plus Mata and Mkhitaryan could be troublesome. Keeping all three players happy would be almost impossible as I don’t see how you can play more than one of those players and Paul Pogba behind a front three without disrupting the balance of the team as Ander Herrera has to be the lone holding midfielder.

A deal for James does seem to be interesting United, and rightly so. His star shone bright at the 2014 World Cup and he sealed his big move to Real Madrid. Since then he’s scored 36 goals in 109 games for Real but has played a bit-part role under Zinedine Zidane.

Someone with James’ quality deserves to be the leading man at a huge club but it’s tough to see how United will do that unless they sell on Mata or Mkhitaryan, or both.

There’s no doubt the Real Madrid man would add goals but with Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s 28 goals from this season likely to be lost next season, James will have to be handed the keys to this offense.

Mourinho may well put a lot of pressure on Rashford to lead the line if, as expected, Zlatan isn’t around, and then James would have to deliver plenty of goals and assists behind the pacey youngster in his first season in the PL. It’s possible he will form a fluid relationship with the likes of Rashford and Martial up top but it’s also unlikely United will pay anywhere near the $88.5 million Real Madrid paid for him almost three years ago, which may be a stumbling block.

James to United makes sense in a lot of ways but when you dig deeper, there will have to be plenty of departures to make his arrival worthwhile both for the player and the club.

I’m not saying it’s a bad deal. I’m just saying Mourinho’s priority should be buying a targetman unless he thinks Rashford is really ready to lead the line all season long.

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid win in routs, remain tied in title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Saturday’s Premier League roundup | Sunday preview ]

Barcelona 4-1 Villarreal

Barca and Real Madrid remain tied, now on 84 points, as La Liga’s title race begins the final sprint to the finish (Barca have just two games remaining). Each of the title hopefuls won in convincing fashion on Saturday. First up, it was Luis Enrique’s Blaugrana.

First up for Barca was Neymar, who put the home side 1-0 up in the 21st minute. Cedric Bakambu pulled Villarreal level 11 minutes later, but Lionel Messi bagged 50th goal of the season, and what would turn out to be the winner, just before halftime.

Luis Suarez made it 3-0 halfway through the second half, and Messi bagged no. 51, from the penalty spot, with exquisite style, not long before full-time. The Barcelona freight train is moving full-steam ahead, hoping against all likelihood for a slip-up that’ll hand them their 25th league title.

Granada 0-4 Real Madrid

Madrid’s game in hand, which won’t be played until May 17 (away to 11th-place Celta Vigo), seems almost certain to decide the 2016-17 La Liga champions, as Barca hold onto the top spot by virtue of their better record in head-to-head matchups this season. On Saturday, there was absolutely nothing that 19th-place Granada, who were relegated last weekend, could do to slow down a side that omitted Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric from the starting lineup. As it turns out, Madrid’s backups are also quite talented.

James Rodriguez put Los Blancos ahead in the 3rd minute and doubled the advantage just eight minutes later.

Another quick double, this one by Alvaro Morata, made it 3-0 and 4-0 in the 30th and 35th minutes, and that was that. Game over after barely half an hour.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sporting Gijon 1-0 Las Palmas
Atletico Madrid 1-0 Eibar

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Alaves vs. Athletic Bilbao — 6 a.m. ET
Valencia vs. Osasuna — 10:15 a.m. ET
Deportivo La Coruña vs. Espanyol — 12:30 p.m. ET
Malaga vs. Celta Vigo — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Leganes vs. Real Betis — 2:45 p.m. ET

Ronaldo hat trick fires Real Madrid past Atleti (video)

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This has been a season of big deficits in the UEFA Champions League, some accompanied by heroic comeback attempts and one — hello, Barca — historic and completed comeback.

That’s what Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid need now that they’ve lost the latest Madrid Derby in lopsided fashion. A trio of goals from Cristiano Ronaldo sent Atleti back across town down 3-0 to Real Madrid.

[ PL PLAYBACK: Saluting shrewd Spurs ]

Ronaldo upped his career UCL goal total to 103, starting with a 10th minute header. He added a screamer in the 73rd minute and a calm finish before the final whistle to give Real its three-goal advantage.

With all respect to Atleti, this one’s over. Real is 90 minutes away from its record 15th UCL Final, one which will put Gareth Bale at home in Wales and the club in position to increase its record haul to 12.

Premier League Playback: Shrewd Spurs succeeding

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TOTTENHAM’S IMPRESSIVE BUSINESS

Victor Wanyama surged forward late in the second half of Tottenham’s 2-0 win against Arsenal in the final North London derby at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

[ MORE: Spurs eager for more ]

Roared on by the crowd the Kenyan clipped the ball into Harry Kane who forced Petr Cech to save as Tottenham closed the gap on Premier League leaders Chelsea to four points with four games to go. Their ninth-straight PL win also, as you may have heard by now, guaranteed that Spurs would finish above Arsenal in the Premier League for the first time in 22 years.

[ MORE: 3 things learned | Player ratings ]

Wanyama, 25, is yet another example of the fine business Spurs have done to turn their squad around. That has led to them being the top performing team in the Premier League over the past two seasons by quite some distance.

After the derby win against Arsenal, ProSoccerTalk asked Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino about Wanyama’s dominant display as the man who joined from Southampton for around $15 million last summer is quickly becoming yet another bargain buy.

“I think this season, what he is doing is fantastic,” Pochettino said. “Today was good and in the second half he was fantastic and he was key in some actions.  I am very pleased, but I am very pleased for all of my squad because we are fighting a lot during the whole season.”

Pochettino has every right to be pleased. So does the transfer committee, board of directors and owner of Tottenham.

Looking at the table below from Sky Sports in the UK, you can see Spurs have accumulated more points, scored more goals and let in the lowest number of goals in the Premier League over the past two seasons.

Despite those incredible stats the most amazing one, for me at least, is how low their net spend is.

In an era where the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United splash the cash like it’s going out of fashion, the shrewd business done by Daniel Levy and Spurs’ board has to be applauded.

Of course, Pochettino and his staff are the ones who put the players in a system and have drastically improved the likes of Dele Alli, Wanyama, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to name but a few. In truth you could go through the entire starting XI for Spurs and make the argument that they’ve all gone to a new level under Pochettino over the past two years.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

When the Argentine arrived in the summer of 2014 he took over a bloated squad which was full of castoffs as a vast chunk of the then world-record transfer fee for Gareth Bale was squandered. Only Christian Eriksen (just $14.8 million from Ajax, by the way) and Erik Lamela remain from that spree.

With Spurs’ new 61,000 capacity, $1 billion home rising behind the current White Hart Lane it is easy to forget that amid all the euphoria around the likes of Dele, Harry Kane, Eriksen and Co. there has to be cost-cutting somewhere. Tying their key players down to long-term deals and spending wisely has been a shrewd move for Spurs. With the potentially tumultuous temporary move to Wembley coming up for next season, having the squad “all-in” with Pochettino will help.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

And if Pochettino and the club can keep upgrading sensibly each summer, then move on squad players to leave room for youngsters to break through, it is a formula which may bring success for the next decade given the average age of this Spurs team and so many of its key contributors still in their early 20’s.

Even if Tottenham don’t quite catch Chelsea this season, there are so many reasons for Spurs to be hopeful for the future.


TOP FOUR BATTLE

The battle is well and truly on for the final two places in the top four as Manchester City and Manchester United both slipped up at the weekend.

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Liverpool took full advantage of that slip-up as Emre Can scored a Goal of the Season contender with an astonishing bicycle kick to put them four points clear of fifth-place Manchester United (who have a game in hand) with three games to go. That means Jurgen Klopp‘s men now control their own destiny as wins against Southampton, West Ham and Middlesbrough will guarantee they’re in the UEFA Champions League next season.

As for City and United, they’re both scrambling to catch Liverpool and although City have the easier schedule, Pep Guardiola‘s men have drawn their last two and have lost the momentum they had gained early in 2017.

For Arsenal, well, a dejected Arsene Wenger admitted after their North London derby defeat to Tottenham that finishing in the top four would prove very difficult but if they win their game in hand against struggling Southampton then they’ll be right back in the race and just three points off fourth place.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Everything is still to play for and two of City, United and Arsenal won’t make the UCL next season. United could, if they win the UEFA Europa League, but given their injury crisis it will be a big ask for Jose Mourinho’s men.

All of a sudden it is Liverpool who have grasped their chance to put themselves in the driving seat to snap up one of the final two places in the top four. City look like the other favorites given their remaining games (Crystal Palace, Leicester and West Brom at home, plus a trip to Watford) but in this season when it seems like nobody wants to finish in the top four, we can expect a few more twists and turns.


PUEL UNDER PRESSURE

ProSoccerTalk understands that the pressure is mounting on Southampton manager Claude Puel at the end of his first season in charge of St Mary’s.

Puel saw his side booed off the pitch at half time and full time of the 0-0 draw against Hull City on Saturday as Dusan Tadic had a last-gasp penalty kick saved by Eldin Jakupovic which would’ve provided Saints with an undeserved victory.

[ MORE: Saints’ fans take over Milan

With Saints still on course for a top 10 finish and coming incredibly close to winning their first major trophy in 41 years, why is Puel under pressure?

For outsiders everything may seem rosy but if you dig a little deeper it’s not easy to find discontent at Southampton. It is believed that throughout the season several senior members of Puel’s squad have aired their concerns over the style of play being ordered by the 55-year-old Frenchman and when that starts to happen, well, we all saw what happened to Claudio Ranieri

Puel is a great coach and has shown in his time in France with Monaco, Lille, Lyon and Nice that he can develop attractive teams and bring through talented youngsters.

That said, there are several reasons why Southampton’s fans, and perhaps players, are turning on him already.

Number one: Southampton’s fans have had success after success. They’ve finished in a higher league position for seven-straight seasons but that run will now end. With Mauricio Pochettino followed by Ronald Koeman, the transition was seamless (almost freakishly so) and they’ve finished in the top eight of the PL in each of the past three seasons. They can’t go on forever — they may indeed finish eighth, once again — but the issue is that many of Southampton’s fans feel like it should. With the current uncertainty surrounding a potential $271 million investment for 80 percent of the club from a Chinese businessman, Saints want to push for the top four and many are unsure if Puel is the right man to lead them to that challenge.

Number two: the Europa League exit was a big blow for Puel. I was in his press conference following the exit to Hapoel Be’er Sheva at St Mary’s back in December and he was distraught. The main reason he was brought to Saints was due to his pedigree in European competitions and his side crashed out at the group stage due to the amount of away goals they’d scored. His rotation policy came back to bite him. Hard. When Saints beat Liverpool in the EFL Cup semifinal to reach the final against Man United at Wembley, I asked Puel if righting the wrongs of this European campaign was key to him. He was unequivocal as to how important Saints being back in Europe, via winning the EFL Cup would be, but Saints came up short, losing 3-2 to United in a final they dominated. Now, he’s left with a bloated squad of players and a lot less games. That will be a headache.

Number three: Puel having a distinct “lack of personality” has been one of the main reasons the fanbase hasn’t quite taken to him. His English isn’t great and he isn’t bothered about delivering box office performances in his press conferences. That has led to many Southampton fans who want him to succeed now having a “meh” attitude if he does leave. Southampton’s fans aren’t too bothered either way about Puel and that’s led to discontent growing steadily despite promising displays littered throughout the season.

However deep you try to dig into this situation, there does appear to be something not quite right about one of the steadiest clubs in the PL in recent years. With key injuries to Charlie Austin, Sofiane Boufal and Virgil Van Dijk this season, plus the Jose Fonte saga leaving him without his two first-choice center backs for over half the campaign, Puel has had plenty of obstacles to overcome, especially with Saints playing 48 games in all competitions to date and that will rise to 53 matches by the end of the PL campaign.

This has not been a normal season and with no European action next season, Puel could thrive with extra time on the training ground and a smaller squad to rotate. Whether or not he’ll be given the chance to kick Saints on is another matter. Rumors state the likes of Garry Monk and Marco Silva are being lined up and ProSoccerTalk understands Fulham’s Slavisa Jokanovic is a leading contender to take charge if Puel is shown the door.

Puel should probably be given another season to push Southampton towards the top six again but the reality is they may not finish above seventh place for the foreseeable future as the perennial powers who struggled over the past two seasons have now regrouped. Whoever came in after Koeman left summer had a big job on their hands to meet rising expectations and Puel has, so far, failed to do that despite glimpses of hope. The current Southampton manager is the victim (unfairly so) of their rapid ascent and undoubted overachievement in recent years.


DIVING NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED

The great simulation debate reared its ugly head this weekend and, as always, it was not pretty.

Penalty decisions involving Marcus Rashford, Leroy Sane and Harry Kane stole the headlines, while we won’t waste much time on Lucas Leiva‘s pathetic dive for Liverpool against Watford on Monday because it was the easiest yellow for simulation in the history of the game. Perhaps the Brazilian had gained inspiration from Rashford and Sane given their actions earlier in the weekend…

Now, let us start by saying referees have an incredibly tough job and players make it even tougher.

Rashford went down right on half time against Swansea as goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski rushed out and referee Neil Swarbrick awarded a penalty kick despite not having a clear view. On second viewing Fabianski pulled away his hands and expecting the contact Rashford had fallen to the ground. It was a clear dive.

Sane then did something similar on Sunday as Man City won a penalty at Middlesbrough. The German winger left his leg trailing and went down under a challenge from Martin de Roon. Boro’s players were livid by referee Kevin Friend awarding a penalty and rightly so. It was another case of simulation.

Then, once again on Sunday, Harry Kane went down under a challenge from Gabriel and although the trailing leg of Arsenal’s defender caught him the Spurs striker let referee Michael Oliver know he’d been caught. Let’s clear up any debate on Kane’s penalty: it was a foul and not a dive. There was clear contact so Oliver got it spot on and hopefully Video Assistant Referees (VARs) will be on hand to help clear up these decisions in the PL in the near future.

In the meantime, how do we stop instances of simulation? The boys discuss in the video above and you have to agree that harsher retrospective bans for diving will help stamp it out of the game. Simple.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Predictions for Champions League semifinals

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With the UEFA Champions League semifinals kicking off on Tuesday, now is a good time to take a closer look at both encounters to see who will meet in the final in Cardiff on June 3.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

There’s a Madrid derby to look forward to, while Juve and Monaco clash with plenty of talented young attackers set to square off.

The final four of the UCL should be lots of fun.


Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid
First leg: At Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid – May 2, 2:45 p.m. ET
Second leg: At Vicente Calderon, Madrid – May 10, 2:45 p.m. ET

For the fourth season in a row these two teams meet in the UCL knockout rounds. After beating their crosstown rivals in two of the last three UCL finals, Real Madrid will be feeling confident of once again ruling the Spanish capital. Yet this promises to be a cagey affair as Diego Simeone’s side dig deep to thwart Zinedine Zidane’s stars. If feels like this could well be Antoine Griezmann’s moment to shine on the biggest stage of all and it also feels like Simeone’s final chance to win the UCL win Atletico before bigger projects perhaps call him, and several of his star players, elsewhere.

When these two teams last met in La Liga at the Bernabeu last month it was a 1-1 draw and that result would be huge for Atleti to take back to the Vicente Calderon with them as they look to send off their famous stadium in style before moving into their brand new home next season. With Gareth Bale out injured for the favorites to win the La Liga title, it could be over to Alvaro Morata to provide the goals for Real but Cristiano Ronaldo and Karem Benzema, as always, will take on most of the goalscoring burden. The midfield duo of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos will have some battle against Gabi, Jimenez and Koke in midfield and this tie could well need extra time to see who goes through to the final. Real’s extra firepower could just prove the difference. Real Madrid to advance 2-1 on aggregate.


Monaco vs. Juventus
First leg: At Stade Louis II, Monaco – May 3, 2:45 p.m. ET
Second leg: At Juventus Stadium, Turin – May 9, 2:45 p.m. ET

How do you stop Monaco’s supercharged offense? That’s the same question everyone has been asking in France and Europe this season and, so far, nobody has come up with an answer. If anybody can, Juvetnus can as the Turin outfit haven’t conceded a UCL goal in 531 minutes. Led by Gianluigi Buffon in goal and the dependable Georgio Chielleni at the heart of their defense, the Italian champions will be the favorites to reach the final but will also be incredibly wary of Kylian Mbappe, Radamel Falcao plus the likes of Silva, Lemar and Carrillo as the supporting cast. Wherever you look, Monaco has goals as they’ve scored six over two games against both Man City and Borussia Dortmund so far in the knockout stages. They are being criminally underestimated.

That said, this is Juve. They just beat Barcelona 3-0 on aggregate in the quarterfinals and are the masters of putting together a defensive masterplan and executing it to perfection. Max Allegri’s men also have some star attackers of their own with Paulo Dybala improving by the week and Gonzalo Higuain the prototypical predator. Expect these two games to deliver plenty of drama, and goals, but the experience of the Italian champs should seem them through. Just. Juventus to advance 3-2 on aggregate.