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Real Madrid, Gareth Bale and why it’s not just about the football

At the Santiago Bernabeu, the stage is literally set for what could be the unveiling of the world’s most-expensive footballer. Gareth Bale’s proposed move from Tottenham to Real Madrid has understandably monopolised recent back pages as fans await the conclusion of a transfer saga that has left many questioning the financial implications of the reported £85 million deal.

Aside from the moral qualms many have about such an astronomical figure, most fans have been left querying whether Bale is worth the record-breaking fee. The Welshman is a phenomenal footballer on a par with other Premier League heavyweights; Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. Yet these players aren’t nearly attracting the astronomical figures to their names as Bale. Robin van Persie, last season’s top goalscorer, was bought for a measly £22.5 million last year. One of the finest all-round English players of the last decade, Wayne Rooney, was only recently valued at a mere £25 million by Chelsea. Luis Suarez, scorer of 30 goals last season, has attracted massive offers from Arsenal but that famous 40 million and a one pound pales in comparison to the reported Bale fee.

The residing question then is this: what exactly are Madrid up to? Gareth Bale is undoubtedly a superb footballer. Not even the most ardent of Arsenal fans would question that. For club and country, the midfielder scored 31 goals last term. He single-handedly won games for his team in sublime fashion on more than a handful of occasions. These are facts that nobody can deny. They are also facts that fans of Manchester United (Rooney and van Persie) and Liverpool can boast of their stars yet no record transfer fee hangs over the heads of these players. Real Madrid president Florentine Perez obviously sees value in the Welshman and is willing to part with £85 million to prove it.

Real Madrid are no strangers to blockbuster signings. In 2001 it was Zinedine Zidane (a then world record £45.6 million). In 2009, it was Kaka (another world record of around £56m) and then Cristiano Ronaldo (yet another world record fee of £80 million). At a cheaper, but no less significant, level they signed David Beckham from Manchester United in 2003 for £24.5 million.

Real Madrid is unashamedly a brand and each of the players mentioned slotted perfectly into the on-going mission to solidify the Galácticos as the largest global brand in football. Through sponsorships and worldwide touring Madrid have become the most recognised football club on the planet.

Gareth Bale

With Beckham they acquired Europe’s most valuable sporting personality. From the very beginning of his Spanish adventure David Beckham was helping his new club recoup the money they had dished out on him – even his medical was sponsored by a health-care firm. Add this to multi-million pound Adidas deal to match Madrid’s and a merchandising agreement that reportedly had Beckham handing 50% of his personal sponsorship earnings to Madrid then it is safe to say that the Spanish giants have an idea of how to spend money to make money.

‘Brand Madrid’ seek players that are able to enhance not just their on-field success but also that off it. Jose Mourinho’s managerial credentials need no clarification yet he was considered surplus to requirements at Madrid as his controversial antics were just not in keeping with the angelic sheen of the nine-time European Cup winners. When Mourinho was seen to poke then Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye the Spanish press called it ‘deplorable’. Not an image football’s biggest commercial club wished to convey.

Madrid were often linked to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez this summer, a player with statistics that at times outshine Bale’s, yet this interest never gathered any momentum and it can only be assumed that this is down to the tainted image of the Uruguayan. Like Mourinho, Suarez is capable of too much brand-damaging controversy to justify spending such amounts of money regardless of his talent.

Just a quick glance at Real Madrid’s history of signings provides a clearer picture of why they are willing to spend such an enormous amount on a clean-cut, fresh faced, superstar in the making. In Bale, Madrid have a young star in the making that they will be able to mould and shape to fit their own needs. In Madrid, Bale has a platform to expand his own brand. It was not so long that it was revealed Bale was attempting to trademark his heart-shaped goal celebration – he is clearly aware of the benefits of building his own brand beyond the game and the benefits of a Madrid move will not be lost on the 24-year-old.

Even on a brand-building level, Bale at such a price will still be seen as a gamble for Madrid. Unlike, Zidane, Kaka, Ronaldo or Beckham, he is not a pre-packaged global star just waiting to become a shirt-selling machine. He doesn’t yet transcend sport like, say, Beckham did. The more cynical of supporters will assume the long drawn-out pursuit of Bale by Madrid is merely a clever marketing ploy to allow the world time to catch up and get to know the world’s most expensive footballer-elect before the eventual finalities are complete.

Simply by being attached to such lucrative and high-profile transfers in recent history, Real Madrid have ensured their names in both the history books and newspapers all around the world; the Gareth Bale situation is no different. Madrid are being talked about by football fans and non-fans alike the world over, and that is just the way the like it as the brand continues to flourish with the latest star commodity preparing his keepy-up skills for the big Bernabeu reveal.

by Jack Poland

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Early wins provide Liverpool with an air of hope

With just two games gone, Liverpool find themselves in relatively unchartered territory – the top four. A position that will be resoundingly welcome to fans that have grown all too used to being mere onlookers to those around them enjoying the thrill of the Champions League.

Cynics will understandably be quick to roll out the old adage of ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ and that it is still early days. This is, indeed, worthy of note. Even with this impressive start, many – including the majority of Liverpool fans – won’t be too surprised to see the Reds miss out on that elusive fourth spot again come May. Those around them have quality that Liverpool can, on their day, certainly match – especially with the return of a certain number 7 – yet the depth of the Liverpool squad is criminally lacking in comparison to Champions League-spot rivals Spurs.

Early days, then, it certainly is, though most Liverpool fans by this point in recent seasons would have already lost any of the hope that pre-season perennially provides. The six points Liverpool have amassed in the last two games took two months last season, with their first win coming on September 29th.

Daniel Sturridge

Many will argue that Liverpool’s form is fairly irrelevant at such an early stage yet it is the fact that this early success has come at this stage that has left fans relieved and hopeful. Too many times have Liverpool looked back at games they could and should have won and rued the difference it made to the end-of-season standings. Too many recent domestic seasons have ended before they’ve even had a chance to start; that the Anfield club haven’t allowed that to happen this term is vital and will be welcomed with open arms by fans. If success isn’t on the bill then at least keep the fans thrilled and engaged until closing time. A season ending in March is far worse than one ending unsuccessfully in May.

Two 1-0 wins are perhaps not going to grab the headlines but they are games that Liverpool would have perhaps drawn or even lost last season, and it would take even the most stubborn of opposing fans to not see the signs of improvement. Liverpool fans checking the scores at Scores.co.uk will be pleasantly surprised by their positive start to the season as they are notorious slow starters.

Reds manager Brendan Rodgers must ensure that these improvements continue, as more are needed – be they filling gaps in the squad with new signings or ruthlessly finishing off teams when the chance arises. Losing out on the likes of Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will hurt a club like Liverpool. History, stature and a global fanbase isn’t enough for players when Champions League football isn’t part of the package and at Liverpool, Champions League football should and must be included if they are to continue improving and maintain these elements that do, at times, attract the biggest names.

Two wins in two to begin the season has been greeted with justifiable joy around Anfield, though fans know it must continue and they will be hoping that, come this time next season, a flurry of similar wins will come with an air of expectation rather than a pleasant surprise.

As Chelsea hunt Cavani – is Torres’ time finally up?

“There’s no better place to be than at Chelsea with Mourinho”. These were the unequivocal words of Fernando Torres recently when questioned on his future with Chelsea. Words that exude nothing else but an unmistakable desire to ply his trade at Stamford Bridge this coming season. Compare these words with the “so-so” that Jose Mourinho mumbled recently to describe Torres’s time at Chelsea and you would be forgiven for thinking that things don’t quite add up for Spain’s number 9.

“So-so” – not a direct denunciation of Torres but certainly not a declaration of faith from Chelsea’s new manager either. Mix this with Mourinho’s not-so-secret desire to bring in Napoli’s Edinson Cavani and the signs do not look good for Torres.

The Chelsea faithful are unlikely to shed many tears if Torres’s departure means Cavani is brought in with the two strikers’ goal-scoring records last season contrasting starkly. 26-year-old Cavani scored a staggering 38 goals in 43 games, 29 of which were in Serie A. Torres, now 29, managed 22 in 64 for Chelsea in a season that many considered his best in blue – just eight of those 22 goals however were Premier League goals. To put it bluntly, Cavani is the player Chelsea thought they were signing in Torres from Liverpool – and more. Any fans doubting Cavani’s ability to make the notoriously difficult transition from Serie A to the Premier League should take solace in the success of strikingly similar players Carlos Tevez and Luis Suarez on these shores.

Fernando Torres

One element that Torres has in his favour however is the competition Chelsea may find in landing the understandably much sought-after Uruguayan. PSG are widely reported to have made Cavani prime target number one this summer and are more than capable of outspending even Chelsea yet Cavani, who was relatively quiet in the Confederations Cup, is believed to be eager to ultimately prove himself in the Premier League.

If Chelsea are unable to nab the Salto man it still remains difficult to imagine Mourinho’s Chelsea lining up against Hull in August with Torres or Demba Ba, who managed just the two league goals last term, leading it. Mourinho is likely to line his side up with just the one striker more times than not and he understandably won’t want to hand that responsibility to a player whose light has significantly faded since his Liverpool days.  Stephan El Shaararwy is another signing that Chelsea have strongly been linked with and one that Torres, like with Cavani, is supposedly being used in as a bargaining tool. Chelsea are unlikely to want their most expensive acquisition festering on the bench and are perhaps wise to use him as makeweight for the future development of that forward line.

Chelsea and Torres are believed to be holding talks this week over his future at the club with the Spaniard hoping to persuade his new manager that he still has a role to play at the club, be that with a new strike partner or not. He’ll certainly not want his roll to be as a deal-maker in the negotiations for his eventual replacement.

Torres is still likely to demand a costly fee and, at his best, remains formidable in every department in front of goal. Enquiries for his services will certainly not be shy in coming forward yet the problem for Torres would be convincing potential suitors that he is able to recapture the scintillating form he has shown slivers of at Chelsea and that he is worth a gamble with what would surely be a pricey fee.

If this is indeed the end of Torres’s spell at Chelsea then the question that remains is where next for ‘El Niño’. Perhaps the most likely destination is wherever Chelsea want him, whether that is in Naples or Milan. Barcelona are rumoured to be interested in Torres as a possible replacement for David Villa whose form has, for him, waned since his injury. Torres though has talked down this link, instead deciding to focus on Chelsea and his wish to benefit from the tutelage of Mourinho. After two-and-a-half underwhelming seasons at Chelsea and with Mourinho mercilessly tracking Europe’s elite however, that wish may well be left unfulfilled.

Tottenham must break Manchester City hoodoo if they are to challenge for top four

Tottenham take on Manchester City this Sunday knowing that they need to pick up three points to get their challenge for a top four finish in the Premier League back on track. The north London side have suffered against City of late, with no wins in the last five meetings between the sides, but Andre Villas-Boas’ men will need to end this three-year hoodoo to salvage their campaign.

Tottenham’s last victory over Manchester City came back in May 2010, with a Peter Crouch goal securing victory, and fourth place in the league, at Eastlands. Since then it has been one draw and four defeats for the White Hart Lane club, and Spurs fans may well be thinking that a bit of revenge is on the cards.

Sergio Aguero and Gareth Bale

The defeats of late include a 5-1 drubbing on the first day of last season at White Hart Lane, but a game that sticks more in the memory is the 3-2 loss at the Etihad Stadium in the reverse fixture. Spurs had put their terrible start to the campaign behind them and were all guns blazing towards a place in the Champions League – some were even touting Harry Redknapp’s men as an outside contender for the title. However, an end-to-end game proved heartbreak for the travelling support, as Jermain Defoe came within inches of winning the game in the dying moments, before City went up the other end and Mario Balotelli scored a penalty. Tottenham’s characteristic second half of the season demise started there.

The predictable demise has started to take effect again this term with unnecessary defeats in the league to Liverpool and Fulham, and elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Basel. The slip up means that Villas-Boas’ men have dropped from third to fifth place, two points behind Arsenal (with a game in hand) and three adrift of Chelsea.

All is not yet lost, but this weekend could be a real factor in who ends up in the Champions League next term and who is awarded the runners-up prize of the Europa League. With Chelsea travelling to Liverpool on Sunday and having cup success in the back of their mind, there is every chance that Spurs can claw back some, if not all, of the deficit that separates the clubs. Arsenal should win at Fulham, but ex-Spurs boss Martin Jol will want a reaction from his side after their midweek home defeat to Chelsea.

Spurs have Gareth Bale back in contention for the clash with City, which is a real boost for the hosts. However Spurs should not solely rely on their Welsh wizard to individually win them the game – a team effort and belief in the camp is needed to pick up three points. If they don’t, wins for Chelsea and Arsenal could mean that the gap is too great for Spurs to come back from with only five games remaining.

Premier League Preview: Big games for Manchester United, Stoke, Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa

Premier League preview: Derby day on Tyneside, United look to bounce back and a big game for Villa

While most eyes will be on Wembley this weekend for the FA Cup semi-finals, there are still some massive games in the Premiership with a number of teams looking for the precious three points.

Newcastle v Sunderland

A massive derby game on Sunday at St James’ Park, with a huge three points on offer in this relegation battle. After their last-gasp victory against Fulham last Sunday, Newcastle know that three points here would all but secure their place in the Premier League for next season and possibly condemn their nearest rivals to a place in the relegation zone.

Paolo Di Canio

After an encouraging performance at Stamford Bridge, Paolo Di Canio will have his team fired up and want them showing the same passion that he will undoubtedly be putting across on the touchline. Sunderland may well see this as a big opportunity with Newcastle playing on Thursday night against Benfica and they may well find it tough to get themselves up for another big physical effort just over two days later. This fixture generally produces goals, cards and talking points so a high scoring draw may well be on the cards, and with a lot of combative midfielders on the pitch a red card or two would not be a surprise.

Stoke v Manchester United

A big game at both ends of the table as Manchester United travel to the Britannia to take on a Stoke City side who have been dragged into a relegation battle. Only Reading are in worst form in the last six games than the hosts, who haven’t won in their last six league games and have only won one of their last six at home. Manchester United meanwhile are at the top of the form table and have not lost an away league game since defeat at Norwich in November.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Stoke now sit just three points above the drop zone after the damaging home defeat to Villa last week and as the lowest scorers in the division and their usually tight defence beginning to leak goals, they are in real danger of falling back into the Championship. The last thing Stoke need now is a visit from the champions elect. Manchester United will be stung by their derby defeat on Monday and they know that defeat here will give Manchester City a chance to get back into the title race. The first goal here will be crucial as the Stoke fans will try and create their famous intimidating atmosphere straight from kick off, an early goal for United and it may well be another easy away day for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. If Stoke could manage to get in front though a positive result will surely act as a springboard for them to retain Premier League status.

Aston Villa v Fulham

Another massive game down the bottom as Paul Lambert’s young side have an opportunity to put some daylight between themselves and Wigan, who are in FA Cup action this weekend. After their impressive win at Stoke last weekend, which dragged them into trouble, Villa could take a massive stride toward safety by making it back-to-back wins.

Christian Benteke

One problem for this Villa side is playing in front of their home fans as they have lost four out of their last six home games. The young players seem to freeze in front of their own fans and play with much more freedom in their away games. Fulham meanwhile have picked up slightly with their away form, losing just two of their last six games but they are generally poor on their travels and now that they are safe for another season Villa’s extra need for the win may sway this fixture in their favour.

By Chris Newman

Liverpool – an added spark in the race for the Premier League top four

Over recent seasons it has been predominantly five main teams fighting it out for the top four places in the Premier League. Manchester United, City and Chelsea have ambitions of winning the division, while north London rivals Tottenham and Arsenal battle each other for the fourth place and Champions League qualification.

Admittedly Newcastle were a result or two short of breaking into this tight-knit group last term, and Everton are now aiming higher this season. However, a real shot in the arm to the Premier League’s top-four race could be the seemingly rejuvenated Liverpool.

Since the Merseyside club dropped out of top-four contention in 2009-10 with a seventh placed finish, virtually at no time have the Reds looked like they have the quality or consistency to challenge for Champions League qualification; until now. With Brendan Rodgers’ principles starting to be adopted by the playing staff, slowly but surely, Liverpool are starting to look like a side that could play in Europe’s top tournament once more.

Liverpool celebrate

Since the start of the Premier League in 1992-93 until the 2009-10 season, the Reds finished in the top four 12 times out of 17. A club with such a massive fanbase, triumphant history and 18 top-flight title wins under its belt has expectation to live up to, especially amongst the Kop faithful.

Inconsistency is still not totally eradicated from Liverpool’s game, but results and performances are starting to look up. In seventh place currently and nine points behind fourth-placed Spurs, having played a game more, it will be a big ask for the Anfield side to make the Champions League qualification places this term, but not impossible. However, come next season the club will look to breach the top four.

Given the quality of players at the Reds disposal it is not inconceivable that they should be in the running for the top four. In Daniel Sturridge they have a proven goalscorer, Luis Suarez possibly the best striker in the land and Raheem Sterling a diamond in the rough. Add to this the potential of Philippe Coutinho, enterprise of Lucas Leiva and experience of Steven Gerrard. With a more-solid looking rearguard and the limitation of individual errors from Pepe Reina, Liverpool have the potential to be as good as they have been in years.

The 49 goals they have scored in the Premier League this term is more than Manchester City and Tottenham; the club is seemingly on the up and if another quality signing or two is added in the summer, Brendan Rodgers’ men will look to start better in 2013-14 and challenge for a place amongst the big boys.

2012/2013 – Who will be this year’s contenders?

The 2012/2013 season will see many of the Premier League’s big guns entering the new campaign with teams that barely resemble those of last season. Liverpool are a major talking point due to the appointment of Swansea’s passing football pioneer Brendan Rodgers.

While some are tipping Liverpool to blossom under Rodgers’s tutelage, others predict he may out of his depth in trying to transform Swansea’s defensive minded version of Tiki-Taka into an attack-minded incarnation that can challenge for European and domestic honours.

Swansea’s game was built around damage limitation. They kept the ball at all costs, they were never keen to try anything too adventurous, and sideways/backwards passes were the hallmark of their game. Playing Tiki-Taka in your own half is a much different prospect to playing it on the front-foot as Barcelona and other well-versed continental teams do.

Jose Enrique has already voiced his approval of Rodgers’s appointment. Players like Enrique, Joe Allen and Luis Suarez are naturally neat on the ball; other players like Steven Gerrard and Charlie Adam more resemble English playmakers who look for the decisive ball and magic moments, instead of passing and moving.

Technique is the key to the continental style passing game. Technique in the form of relentless clever movement and one touch perfect control. It’s a game that requires players playing for each other rather than players who yearn for solo impact and stardom.

Rodgers’ tenure at Liverpool may well revolutionise the English game if he is successful, but his unswerving commitment to the passing game could also be his undoing. Sometimes teams need a pragmatic English game with a cross and a header as a backup plan; refer to Andres Villas Boas stint at Chelsea. Liverpool could show up as decent Europa League contenders this season, worth a bet at one of the many sports bookers on the internet.

Liverpool will be hard to beat as a cup side due to their prophesised ball retention skills, so could be good candidates for a Europa League run. Rodgers continental style game that may be better suited to the Europa League than the Premier League.

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La Liga’s dominance in the Europa League a lesson for the Manchester clubs and Tottenham this season

La Liga’s dominance of Europe’s second most prestigious tournament should serve as a timely reminder of what the Premier League is missing out on.

This week sees the return of the Champions League, with much of the attention focusing on Chelsea’s clash with Barcelona, while Bayern Munich face off against Real Madrid.

Yet for all the glitz and glamour of the tournament, just 24 hours later, another set of European fixtures could make for interesting viewing.

On Thursday evening, Atletico Madrid and Valencia will play in the semi-final of the Europa League while Athletic Bilbao head to Portugal to face Sporting Lisbon.

The line-up stands as a testament to the depth in quality that exists in Spain with Atletico and Bilbao reaching this stage of the competition after navigating a tricky group and knock-out phase.

This was undoubtedly evidenced during Bilbao’s demolition of Manchester United. Entering the competition after being dumped out of the Champions League, United were fortunate to escape with a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in the first leg, but even then manager Alex Ferguson sensed the tide of the tie was against them.

Speaking to the BBC then, the Scot admitted that, “They were the better team,” with the second leg to come looking “uphill fight.”

The comments spoke volumes for the quality of Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao team, given number of times Ferguson has come out fighting when the Reds have faced seemingly insurmountable odds. They were quickly confirmed too with a 2-1 defeat in the return fixture.

Yet in truth, Spain’s continued love affair with the Europa League should come as little surprise to those who have followed the competition over the years.

From Sevilla’s back-to-back wins in the mid-2000s to the more recent win for the likes of Atletico Madrid and with notable runs for the likes of Espanyol, Getafe and Villarreal, Spanish league sides have always taken a keen interest in the pursuit of the trophy.

It is an understandable focus too, with much of the domestic game swallowed up by the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But despite the notable similarities in the English game, with the economic powerhouses of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City dominating proceedings, Premier League perceptions of the competition portray it as a nuisance.

Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp described the competition as “a killer” to his side’s chances of competing for Champions League qualification warning “Thursday and Sunday every week…you’ve got no chance in the Premier League with that”.

Yet the relative progress of a Stoke City team with far less resources than the likes of Tottenham, alongside solid league form, indicates that this may be an incorrect assumption.

Spanish clubs are not the only nation reaping the benefits of Europa League football either, as Germany continues to enjoy relative success in the tournament, with the unfancied Hannover 96 and Schalke 04 progressing to the quarter-finals stage via the group stage.

Is it any coincidence then that Spain, Germany and other Europa League enthusiasts Portugal, excel most at international level?

Encouraging English participation in this tournament could make for a more rounded domestic game, and could offer some solace for fans tired of the continued chase for the so-called ‘success’ of finishing fourth in the Premier League.

Fulham’s previous run in the competition demonstrated the thrills and passion that the Europa League can bring to fans and the game as a whole with few Cottagers fans able to forget the famous victory over Juventus en route to the final.

For the English game to reap any notable reward from the tournament though, a change of perception is required among the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham.

The Europa League is no killer – it could breathe new life into the English game.

By Jack Beresford

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