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.

De Gea limps off for Spain ahead of Man Utd-Liverpool tilt

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Here’s the good news for Manchester United supporters: David De Gea played incredibly well for Spain in its EURO qualifier on Tuesday as La Furia Roja clinched a place in EURO 2020.

The bad news? The performance was truncated, with De Gea limping off the pitch and replaced by Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga in the 60th minute.

[ MORE: EURO qualifying wrap ]

De Gea appeared to injure himself while attempting a goal kick of all things, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be wondering what fresh hell awaits him next.

Perhaps that’s simply the fact that Liverpool visits Old Trafford on Sunday in a match that Solskjaer previously said was perhaps ideal for his reeling Red Devils.

Solskjaer would turn to Sergio Romero should De Gea been unable to play at the weekend. Lee Grant is United’s third goalkeeper with Dean Henderson on loan to Sheffield United.

United was already going to need a lot of help to beat back the unbeaten Reds.

EURO qualifying wrap: Spain earns place in stoppage time

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Spain clinched a spot in EURO 2020 via a last-minute equalizer, but the rest of the picture only got murkier thanks to dramatics in Romania and Switzerland.)

[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]


Sweden 1-1 Spain

A Marcus Berg header had Sweden on the verge of a significant home win against nearly unbeatable David De Gea and Spain, but Valencia forward Rodrigo delivered a stoppage time goal to give Robert Moreno’s men a place in EURO 2020. But Sweden can breathe a little easier thanks to a stoppage time goal across the continent.

Bad news for Manchester United, though, as De Gea’s strong day ended early due to injury.

Romania 1-1 Norway

New York City FC’s Alexandru Mitrita added another beauty to his collection in scoring for the second successive qualifier, but it wouldn’t stand up thanks to former Crystal Palace striker Alexander Sorloth‘s stoppage time equalizer.

Switzerland 2-0 Republic of Ireland

Terrible from the Irish, who trailed after 16 minutes and then went down to 10 men when Seamus Coleman was shown a red card in the 76th minute. Former West Ham man Edimilson Fernandes put it to bed in stoppage time as the Swiss out-attempted Ireland 20-9.

The Irish are tied for the lead in the group with 12 points but that’s about where the good news ends. They do not have an automatic spot in the playoffs while Denmark does and has 12 points. Switzerland has 11 and has also played one fewer match.

Ireland will need to beat Denmark next month and hope for help on the out-of-town scoreboard when Switzerland meets Gibraltar and Georgia.

Finland 3-0 Armenia

Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki continued his fine year with a pair of goals after Fredrik Jensen staked the Finnish side to a lead in Turku. Group J second place side Finland has a five-point lead on chasing Armenia and BNH.

Elsewhere

Faroe Islands 1-0 Malta
Gibraltar 2-3 Georgia
Greece 2-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Liechtenstein 0-5 Italy
Israel 3-1 Latvia

Lloyd: Coming off bench at World Cup “rock bottom of my entire career”

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The upper echelon of the USWNT player pool, especially the veteran generation, just swims in a different competitive gene pool.

Comments from a recent podcast featuring Carli Lloyd are the latest evidence of this, as the USWNT legend calls not starting regularly at this summer’s World Cup “the worst time of my life.”

[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]

She says she was happy to be a part of it and happy for her teammates but doesn’t back down from the “worst” diagnosis. Yeah, you read that right.

“I’m not going to lie and sugarcoat it,” Lloyd said on Julie Foudy’s Laughter Permitted podcast. “It was absolutely the worst time of my life. It affected my relationship with my husband, with friends. It really was rock bottom of my entire career. But somehow, you see light at the end of the tunnel, and I can honestly say I’m having more fun now playing than I ever have in my career. I think I just learned a lot throughout it.”

To be fair, Lloyd hasn’t backed up anyone in almost a decade and has since won a Ballon d’Or. Not many elite athletes get used to being second (or fourth) fiddle, especially on a major stage like that.

The personalities on this team are as big as any produced by Ronaldo’s Brazil or Zidane’s France. Some may laugh at this, but it shows what a tremendous job Jill Ellis did in marshaling the team to two-straight World Cups, the first with Abby Wambach in a sub’s role and the second with Lloyd.

It also shows the marvelous competitive nature of Lloyd and the resilience of players who know they’d start for any number of teams in the world. Lloyd says in the podcast that she believed she was playing at near her best level despite being moved from midfielder to forward.

Obviously no player prefers a sub’s role to starting, but — wow — if it isn’t bewildering to hear Lloyd talk about her supporting role at age 37 being the worst time of her life. Different types.

Liverpool’s Alisson, Matip return to training

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Premier League leaders Liverpool have been handed a huge boost ahead of their massive clash at bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Remember: Liverpool are eight points clear atop the table and United sit in 12th, so Jurgen Klopp‘s men are keen to rub salt further into the wounds of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Red Devils.

Alisson and Joel Matip both returned to training at Melwood, with Alisson recovering from a calf injury which he suffered on the opening day of the season.

The Brazilian goalkeeper has been missing after limping out of the 4-1 win against Norwich City on Aug. 9, and his return to full fitness will bolster this already stingy Liverpool defense. Adrian has performed admirably, albeit with a few errors, in Alisson’s absence but it is now time for the superstar goalkeeper to return to action.

As for Matip, the towering center back suffered an injury against Sheffield United and missed Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League win against Red Bull Salzburg and their narrow Premier League victory against Leicester City.

Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren have both come in for Matip but neither have been solid enough and the former Schalke star will slot straight back in alongside Virgil Van Dijk and bring a steadying influence to the entire defensive line. Matip has been sensational this season, just as everyone expected Gomez to take his starting spot.

Another situation to keep an eye on is the fitness of Mohamed Salah, as he trained on his own at Melwood. Salah was caught with a rash challenge by Hamza Choudhury at the end of Liverpool’s win over Leicester and suffered an ankle injury.

Klopp was incandescent with rage about the foul on Salah and it appears the Egyptian winger is in a race against time to be fit for the clash against Man United, although he is reportedly looking good to play at Old Trafford on Sunday.

With the fitness of Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw Anthony Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and others a constant struggle for United in recent weeks, Solskjaer hasn’t had much help in that department.

Having Alisson and Matip back is great news for Liverpool and Klopp.