Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder joked that Gareth Bale should stay at Real Madrid and enjoy the city's "great golf courses".

Bale is heavily linked with a return to Tottenham, the club he left to join Madrid in 2013.

The 31-year-old has won two LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues among numerous other honours with Madrid, but has been frozen out as he seemingly nears a return to Spurs.

But Wilder joked he wanted Bale to stay in Spain, as the attacker's return would only make life harder for his team.

"I said a couple of years ago when we first landed in the Premier League when Eden Hazard was going to Real Madrid that I'd give him a lift to the airport," he told reporters.

"Hopefully Gareth stays in Madrid, it's a lovely place Madrid and there are some great golf courses out there so don't make it any harder for us."

On their return to the Premier League last season, Sheffield United finished ninth in the table and just five points behind sixth-placed Tottenham.

Wilder, whose team face Burnley in the EFL Cup on Thursday, said he was unsurprised Bale wanted to return to England.

"I'm not surprised that he wants to come and play in the Premier League," he said.

"Our experience over the last year has been fabulous and we want more of that and I suppose there'd be a lot of Spurs fans wishing that to happen.

"But I don't think there'd be a lot of Sheffield United fans wishing that to happen because that just causes another problem when we have to play the likes of Tottenham and the other big hitters."

Gareth Bale would inject some much-needed "magic" into Tottenham's side should the Real Madrid forward return to north London, according to Harry Redknapp.

Tottenham are in negotiations with Madrid over a possible deal for Bale, who left Spurs for Los Blancos in a €100million (£85m) transfer in 2013.

Bale has helped Madrid win four Champions League trophies – scoring decisive goals in two of those finals – and two LaLiga titles, yet has fallen down the pecking order in the Spanish capital.

While he has struggled with injuries, Bale has often been left out in the cold even when fit by Zinedine Zidane, who played the Wales star just 20 times across all competitions last term.

Former Spurs manager Redknapp – who gave Bale the chance to thrive as a winger rather than as a full-back, where he initially played – believes the 31-year-old would be a brilliant addition for Tottenham or Manchester United, who have also been linked.

"It would be a fantastic signing for the club and it would be great for Gareth to get back playing again. He's such a talent, such a great player and it's waste to see him not playing," Redknapp told BBC Radio Wales.

"To get back to Tottenham could just turn their season around. They've been quite average in the last six months or so. End of last season and obviously got beat on Sunday by Everton. They need that little bit of magic Gareth can bring.

"If he went there [or] Manchester United... wherever he went, he'd make a massive difference."

On Wednesday, Jonathan Barnett – Bale's agent – told Stats Perform News: "We're negotiating at the moment, that's all. I won't discuss [how close it is]."

Meanwhile, Spurs boss Jose Mourinho insisted in a news conference ahead of Tottenham's clash with Lokomotiv Plovdiv that he would not discuss a player at another club.

Though Redknapp would love to see Bale return to Spurs, he concedes it will be a difficult deal to achieve.

"The difficulty obviously is working out a deal because no one can pay his wages. There's no way anyone in England can take him full-time," Redknapp said.

"The only way they'll do a deal is if Real Madrid meet at least half his wages. I'd think that's the stumbling block at the moment for Tottenham or anyone else interested in him.

"It's not going to be a case of Gareth taking any wage cuts, it's going to be a case of Real Madrid having to maybe take a third of his wages off of Tottenham.

"[Tottenham chairman] Daniel Levy's a very good negotiator, so I'm sure he'll get the best deal for Tottenham."

Eric Dier understands the buzz surrounding Gareth Bale's potential return to Tottenham but insists he is unaffected by any speculation.

Bale could be in line to return to Spurs seven years after leaving for Real Madrid, with Los Blancos reportedly keen to get the Wales star – who played just 20 times last season – off their books.

Jonathan Barnett, Bale's agent, confirmed to Stats Perform News on Wednesday that talks were ongoing over a deal, though would not say if an agreement was close.

However, Dier insisted he and the squad do not let transfer speculation impact their performances.

"I'm sure from the fans' point of view, when you're linked with a player of that level it's obviously exciting," Dier told a news conference ahead of Spurs' Europa League qualifier against Lokomotiv Plovdiv.

"For me personally, it doesn't really affect me in any way. It's not the first time and it won't be the last time.

"There's constantly speculation, lots of different talk. Every day people are trying to fill the newspapers and the websites, personally it doesn't really affect me in any way. I'm quite used to it."

Dier also added that there had not been any discussion about Bale between the squad members.

"No, nothing on the WhatsApp group. Obviously there's a lot of speculation and it's impossible not to see it but it's not for me to speculate," the England international, who does not believe Spurs' dressing room is in need of a lift despite a poor performance in their season-opening game against Everton, said.

"I don't know because he's still at Real Madrid, I really can't talk about a player from another team. It has really got nothing to do with me.

"The dressing room isn't in a bad place, we've had one game. Pre-season was in very difficult circumstances. The mood has been very positive within the group.

"I'm still really excited for the season, feel upbeat. We didn't start in the way we wanted to, but still feel we're in a very good place. It's all about taking every game as it comes and being fully focused on tomorrow. We need a good result."

Spurs have signed Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg this transfer window and are also being linked with Bale's Madrid club-mate Sergio Reguilon, but Dier does not believe the squad is in desperate need of fresh faces.

"There is a lot of new blood in the dressing room. [Steven] Bergwijn, Gedson Fernandes – Pierre and Matt both just arrived," he said.

"I already feel it's a very different dressing room. I already feel there's a very different dynamic."

Jose Mourinho kept his cards close to his chest on the possibility of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham, as negotiations continue with Real Madrid.

Bale left Spurs to join Madrid in a €100million (£85m) move in 2013, after several outstanding seasons at White Hart Lane.

However, despite having gone on to win numerous honours – including four Champions Leagues and two LaLiga titles – the Welshman has seen his game time become increasingly limited under Zinedine Zidane.

Bale's agent Jonathan Barnett on Friday confirmed talks between Madrid and Spurs were ongoing, telling Stats Perform News: "We're negotiating at the moment, that's all. I won't discuss [how close it is]."

In his news conference ahead of Tottenham's Europa League clash with Lokomotiv Plovdiv on Thursday, Mourinho insisted he would not comment on the situation of a player at another club.

"Gareth Bale is a Real Madrid player, I don't comment on players from another club," said Mourinho.

"That's not my job to have contact with agents or honestly, I don't want to comment on that. Especially on players for other clubs.

"I don't comment on hypothetical stuff. Again, I repeat, I'm not going to comment on Gareth Bale. He's a Real Madrid player and I have to respect that."

Could Tottenham and Gareth Bale reunite?

Bale, who left Tottenham for Real Madrid in 2013, is not wanted in the Spanish capital.

While Manchester Untied are reportedly interested, former club Spurs are Bale's preference.

 

TOP STORY – SPURS LEAD BALE RACE

Tottenham are ahead of Premier League rivals Manchester United in the pursuit of Real Madrid outcast Gareth Bale, according to ESPN.

Bale has reportedly been told he can leave Madrid after falling out of favour with head coach Zinedine Zidane.

The Welshman wants to return to former club Tottenham after leaving Spurs for Madrid in 2013 and the Telegraph claims Dele Alli could be included in a deal to bring Bale back to London.

While United's interest is believed to be serious, it all depends on whether they are able to sign number one target and Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Transfer Podcast reports United believe that if they leave final negotiations for Sancho until the last week of the transfer window, Dortmund will eventually cave in and sell the England international. Dortmund have refused to budge on their €120million (£108m) valuation.

- The Mirror claims Arsenal are close to offloading unwanted trio Sead Kolasinac, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira. Kolasinac has been linked to West Ham, Valencia are considering Guendouzi and Torreira has been tipped to join Torino. The Gunners want to keep full-back Hector Bellerin but he may be sold to Paris Saint-Germain.

Roma are poised to sign Juventus full-back Mattia De Sciglio, reports Fabrizio Romano. It comes as Juve close in on Roma striker Edin Dzeko, while Roma Press says the latter are set to complete the capture of Hellas Verona defender Marash Kumbulla. He had been linked to Inter, Lazio and Juve.

-  Luis Suarez's move to Juve has collapsed, says RAC1. The Barcelona veteran had been tipped to leave Camp Nou for Turin but a delay in an Italian citizenship test has reportedly scuppered the deal. Atletico Madrid are now an option for the Uruguayan.

- The Mail claims Bayern Munich are ready to renew their interest in Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi. The Englishman was linked to Bayern last year before opting to sign a new deal. Now, Hudson-Odoi could swap London for Munich before the October 5 deadline, with Juve also reportedly eyeing the Chelsea star.

- Diario AS reports Turkish giants Fenerbahce are eyeing Atletico's Diego Costa. Fenerbahce just sold striker Vedat Muriqi to Lazio and may use the transfer funds to bring Costa to Istanbul.

United had been favourites to land Sergio Reguilon from Madrid but the Telegraph and widespread reports say Tottenham are poised to sign the Spanish full-back. United have been reluctant to include a buy-back clause in any deal with Madrid.

- According to Sport Bild, Liverpool have contacted Bayern regarding Thiago Alcantara but the asking price is too high. United and Barca are also reportedly interested.

Gareth Bale could make a sensational return to Tottenham after the Real Madrid star's agent talked up a reunion.

Wales star Bale has been frozen out of the first-team picture at Madrid by head coach Zinedine Zidane, despite a decorated stint in the Spanish capital which has included four Champions League triumphs.

The 31-year-old joined Madrid from Spurs in September 2013 for what was then a world-record €100million fee.

Tottenham are reported to be in talks over re-signing Bale, with a loan move thought to be most likely and wages understood to be in the region of £600,000 per week a significant hurdle to negotiate.

Nevertheless, the winger's agent Jonathan Barnett stated playing in north London once again would be his client's preferred option.

"Gareth still loves Spurs," he told BBC Sport Wales. "It's where he wants to be."

Manchester United have frequently been linked to Bale during his time in LaLiga.

He does not fit the age profile of players United tend to sign, although he might be viewed as an alternative option at a time when attempts to bring Borussia Dortmund and England youngster Jadon Sancho to Old Trafford appear to have stalled.

Bale's team-mate, left-back Sergio Reguilon, has been linked to both United and Spurs.

Tottenham head coach Jose Mourinho spoke of his desire to sign another forward ahead of the season opener against Everton last weekend and Bale's arrival would certainly serve as a timely boost after that dispiriting 1-0 home loss.

Memphis Depay will reportedly join Barcelona, who are having problems in their pursuit of Lautaro Martinez.

After a trophy-less 2019-20 season, LaLiga giants Barca are rebuilding under Ronald Koeman.

They have been linked with numerous forwards, and one looks set to join as early as this week.

 

TOP STORY – DEPAY TO JOIN BARCELONA

Lyon star Depay will join Barcelona and his €30million move could be announced this week, according to De Telegraaf.

The move would see the forward reunite with his former Netherlands coach Koeman.

Depay scored 15 goals in 22 games for Lyon last season, during which he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

ROUND-UP

- Barcelona's move for Martinez is more complicated. Sport reports they are waiting for exits before making a move, while Real Madrid and Manchester City are keeping an eye on the forward. Meanwhile, Fabrizio Romano claims Inter will have another meeting with Martinez's agents after the transfer window to extend his contract beyond 2023. It comes as Sport also believes former Paris Saint-Germain star Edinson Cavani has offered his services to Barca.

- Staying at Barcelona, Mundo Deportivo reports they will make a second offer for Eric Garcia. It says they are prepared to pay €15m (£13.9m) for the Manchester City defender, but the Premier League club want €18m (£16.7m). Meanwhile, Marca says Atletico Madrid have rejected a £92.5m (€100m) bid from City for defender Jose Gimenez.

- At Madrid, the attention is on a possible move for Kylian Mbappe next year. AS reports Los Blancos have an advantage over other clubs in their pursuit of the France international due to the forward's admiration for French coach Zinedine Zidane.

- Gareth Bale continues to be linked with Manchester United. The Sun reports United are preparing to make a loan move for the Real Madrid forward, whose high wages have seemingly made an exit from the Santiago Bernabeu difficult.

- United are also poised to make other moves. The Premier League giants are considering a move for Valencia midfielder Uros Racic, according to The Sun, which says the Serbian midfielder could be available for £28million (€30.3m). Meanwhile, Fabrizio Romano claims United are in talks with Sergio Reguilon's agents, but club officials are unwilling to accept Real Madrid retaining a buy-back clause for the left-back.

- Lucas Torreira could be set for the Arsenal exit. CalcioMercato reports Torino have agreed to pay €24m (£22.2m) for the 24-year-old midfielder.

Lautaro Martinez is staying at Inter despite rumoured interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona, according to the player's agent Carlos Beto Yaque.

Barcelona have been strongly linked with the Argentina international for a number of months, while LaLiga rivals Madrid have also recently been credited with an interest.

A couple of members of Martinez's entourage were seen entering Inter's headquarters on Monday, with reports in Italy suggesting Madrid had a bid accepted over the weekend. 

However, agent Beto Yaque insisted it was a routine meeting and the 23-year-old will remain at San Siro beyond the end of the transfer window.

"It was just a courtesy visit, that is all," he told Tuttomercatoweb. "There is nothing with Real Madrid and Barcelona. Lautaro is staying here at Inter."

Martinez scored 21 goals in all competitions as Inter finished second in Serie A and reached the Europa League final last season.

His €111million (£98.8m) release clause expired in July and he has three more years to run on his existing deal.

Raphael Varane will lead Real Madrid in his own way should he one day succeed Sergio Ramos as captain.

The France international has formed a formidable partnership with Ramos in the heart of Madrid's defence during his nine seasons at the club.

He has been touted as a possible contender to take on captaincy duties when Ramos, who will turn 35 later this campaign, eventually departs the Santiago Bernabeu.

However, the World Cup-winning centre-back is not thinking about what the future holds and says Ramos remains an integral player for Madrid.

"For the future, it's difficult to plan," he told beIN SPORTS. "Real Madrid is a very, very big club with great players. What is important is that everyone plays their part in the team. 

"When we won our titles, our Champions Leagues, it was as a team, with eleven leaders on the pitch each time. 

"Sergio is a legend in Madrid. The future for the moment I do not project about it, but for sure Ramos is a very important player for us.

"What is certain is that we are very complementary with Sergio Ramos, in our way of playing.

"We have qualities that complement each other perfectly. We have been playing together for several years, so we know each other very well. 

"In defense, it works in pairs and this understanding is very important. For the future, after the departure of Ramos, it is difficult to project yourself. 

"I am a leader in my own way. With my team-mates, I talk a lot before matches about tactics and positioning. We each have our own way."

Without the suspended Ramos alongside him, Varane made a couple of costly errors in August's 2-1 loss to Manchester City as Madrid exited the Champions League.

Varane takes full blame for Madrid's last-16 defeat and is keen to quickly move on when the new campaign begins next weekend.

"For sure, that will not remain a very good memory in my career. It was a difficult game for me, this elimination," he said. "Immediately after the match I wanted to take responsibility. 

"I made some mistakes, it cost us the victory. You had to digest and watch what is happening ahead, and think about what is happening.

"At the high level, we don't have time to think about it - we have to think about the next game. The days that followed were a bit difficult, I admit, but at the top level, you have to look ahead quickly."

Real Madrid have made no secret of their admiration for Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe.

Mbappe himself has flirted with the possibility of working with fellow Frenchman Zinedine Zidane at the Santiago Bernabeu.

A blockbuster transfer could be getting closer…

 

TOP STORY – MADRID WAITING FOR MBAPPE

Real Madrid are prepared to target Kylian Mbappe next year as the Paris Saint-Germain forward wants to leave the Ligue 1 champions, according to reports in Spain.

Mbappe has reportedly told PSG he wants to depart the French capital at the end of the 2020-21 season.

Monday's editions of Marca and Diario AS are dominated by Mbappe, with the front pages saying Madrid are waiting to pounce for the France star in 2021.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Telegraph claims Manchester United have shown an interest in Inter's Ivan Perisic as the Red Devils struggle to negotiate a deal with Borussia Dortmund for Jadon Sancho. Perisic spent last season on loan at Bayern Munich.

Tottenham have set their sights on Southampton striker Danny Ings, says Football London. Spurs are desperate to bolster their attacking stocks, though it will be tough to prise the former Liverpool man to London.

- Sportitalia claims Roma have agreed personal terms with Napoli forward Arkadiusz Milik, who has also been linked with Tottenham and Juventus. Milik's possible arrival in Rome could see Edin Dzeko leave for Serie A champions Juve.

Milan are confident of signing Federico Chiesa from Fiorentina, reports La Gazzetta dello Sport. Milan's faith is based on the likely exit of Lucas Paqueta and Chiesa's dropping price tag.

- Mundo Deportivo says Liverpool star Georginio Wijnaldum is set to stay at Anfield despite interest from LaLiga champions Barcelona. Ronald Koeman's Barca could now rival Liverpool for Bayern's Thiago Alcantara, who has also been linked with United.

Roma are struggling to reach a deal with United for defender Chris Smalling, claims Calciomercato. Roma had hoped to sign the former loanee by the weekend, but the Italian club are now turning to Torino centre-back Armando Izzo as a possible alternative.

- Madrid defender Sergio Reguilon prefers another loan move to Sevilla rather than a United transfer, according to Diario AS. Despite United's interest, Reguilon wants to remain in Spain as he eyes a possible return to the Santiago Bernabeu at the end of 2020-21.

Eduardo Camavinga admitted he is flattered by Real Madrid's interest but the Rennes sensation remains focused after opting to remain at the French club in 2020-21.

Camavinga has been strongly linked with LaLiga champions Madrid, while Ligue 1 titleholders Paris Saint-Germain are also reportedly eyeing the 17-year-old midfielder.

France's youngest debutant since 1914 after making his bow in the country's 4-2 Nations League win over Croatia, Camavinga has already committed to playing for Rennes this season.

Asked about Madrid's reported interest, Camavinga – contracted at Rennes until 2022 – told Telefoot: "Certainly when a big club is interested, it is nice. But I am not getting carried away.

"I took this choice with my family [to stay at Rennes]. Today we are happy to have made this decision. I just need to focus on football and not think too much about everything else around it.

"Life is very good at the moment. Life is very good at the moment."

Camavinga made 36 appearances in all competitions for Rennes last season as the Ligue 1 outfit qualified for the Champions League.

He has scored one goal and supplied one assist in three Ligue 1 games for Rennes this term, with Julien Stephan's unbeaten side boasting seven points.

Barcelona are reportedly targeting Liverpool star Mohamed Salah.

Salah made a fine start to the Premier League season, scoring a hat-trick for Jurgen Klopp's men in a 4-3 win over Leeds United on Saturday.

Unsurprisingly, the forward is apparently wanted by LaLiga giants Barca.

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA MAKE SALAH TOP TARGET

Barcelona have made Liverpool star Salah their top transfer target, according to the Express.

Salah and his Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane have often been linked with moves to Barca's rivals Real Madrid.

Since Ronald Koeman arrived to take charge at Camp Nou, Barca have been said to be interested to numerous forwards, including Lyon star Memphis Depay.

ROUND-UP

- Frustrated in their pursuit of Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho, Manchester United may look elsewhere. The Express reports the Premier League giants could make a move for Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale.

- Back at Camp Nou and Luis Suarez is expected to make an exit this close season. Mundo Deportivo reports Juventus – the most strongly linked to the forward – remain hopeful of signing Suarez.

- Could Christian Eriksen leave Inter after less than a year? CalcioMercato reports the Serie A giants are prepared to listen to offers for the midfielder.

- Inter may already have their replacement if the Denmark international leaves. Gianluca Di Marzio reports Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal is "one step away" from joining Inter.

- Emiliano Martinez looks set to leave Arsenal. Goal reports the goalkeeper is close to a £20million move to Aston Villa with a deal to be finalised in the coming days. Martinez has been at Arsenal since 2010.

It is 16 years since Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were all beaten to the Spanish title. Valencia were the victors then.

The season before saw Real Sociedad push Madrid all the way in the title race; Sevilla entered the final day of the 2006-07 campaign with a chance of an unlikely success, while Villarreal finished second the following year.

In more ways than one, it feels like a bygone era. As the money in football grew exponentially, so did the margin for error for the biggest clubs.

Atletico managed to buck the trend, re-establishing themselves as a top club through smart recruitment, plenty of money and finding a coach in Diego Simeone who was not only able to get the best out of players, but improve them.

Although they haven't quite kicked on in the manner many might have expected, stagnating perhaps, Atletico have finished in the top three every season since 2011-12.

But ahead of 2020-21's kick-off on Saturday, there is a feeling there might finally be the possibility for other clubs to join the party again.

With Madrid, champions though they are, by no means spectacular and seemingly reluctant to spend, Barcelona tearing themselves apart from the inside and Atletico in stasis, now seems to be as good a time as any for a challenge to come from elsewhere.

Sevilla and Villarreal will hope it's their time.

"Why can't we dream?"

In the past 14 years, if any club has mastered knockout football, it's Sevilla. Six UEFA Cup/Europa League trophies now fill the museum at their atmospheric Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan home – no other team have won as many titles in UEFA competitions in that time.

So far they have failed to elevate themselves to the next level, though, with only one genuine title challenge in the same period – it's difficult to even consider them Champions League regulars either.

But their most recent Europa League success felt a bit different. Their route to the final was tricky, beating Roma, Wolves and Manchester United, before winning 3-2 against a resurgent – and expensively assembled – Inter in the showpiece.

It was a statement of intent, a declaration of ambition – it was the Europa League, but they beat Champions League-level opponents to win it.

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly impacted upon the transfer market, and that has hampered the way Sevilla usually work. Sporting director Monchi makes no secret of the fact the club must sell every year in order to build a squad they otherwise would not be able to afford.

But the flipside to that is, for arguably the first time since Monchi first took up his role in 2000, Sevilla will begin the season with a settled squad. Sergio Reguilon and Ever Banega are the only major departures, while Oscar Rodriguez and Ivan Rakitic are fine acquisitions to replace the latter.

Coach Julen Lopetegui took a while to win over supporters, but by the end of the season he had Sevilla looking consistent and difficult to beat, setting a new club record of 21 matches unbeaten in all competitions.

That being said, Lucas Ocampos aside, the jury is out on their attack. Youssef En-Nesyri and Luuk de Jong failed to reach double figures for goals in LaLiga, and one gets the impression Sevilla will struggle to reach the next level without a deadlier finisher in the squad – their haul of 54 in 2019-20 was not especially remarkable.

But at the back Sevilla were frequently excellent, their 34 goals conceded being the third-fewest in the league and the lowest – by 13 – they have managed over the past five years.

The transformation in the team's style of play has been significant. They went from 35 fast breaks in 2018-19 to 19 last term, made almost 3,000 more passes and became increasingly direct, with headed attempts on goal up to 93 from 75.

But again, their main problem comes back to goals – they dropped 20 points from winning positions, and when you look at their 13 draws, seven were in matches where Sevilla netted first, and five of those finished 1-1. An extra goal in each of those five games would equate to 10 more points across the season.

Enough to win then the title? Not quite, but it highlights the fine margins - clubs like Sevilla don't have the room for error that Barca and Madrid do. They have to be more ruthless, and if they are, who's to say where they'll end up.

"Why can't we dream [about winning LaLiga]?" asked club president Jose Castro, quoted on the front cover of Marca recently. Challenging for the title is the next step and they look readier now than they have in 13 years.

Yellow Submarine ready to make a splash

The mess at nearby Valencia has proven particularly beneficial for Villarreal. Los Che are financially crippled, not in Europe this season and the whole club appears to be at odds with itself.

But few expected to see certain key players leave.

Captain Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin headed for the Ceramica, joining Villarreal for a combined figured of just €8m – the former was a free transfer.

Landing Spain international Parejo represents a remarkable coup for Villarreal. He had been a long-term servant at Valencia, spending nine years there and developing into one of LaLiga's most complete midfielders.

His arrival at Villarreal could be a game-changer, while Coquelin has also proven himself dependable in LaLiga. Add to that pair the precocious talents of Takefusa Kubo, a loan arrival from Madrid, and there's plenty of cause for optimism.

The Yellow Submarine finished fifth last term, 10 points adrift of Sevilla in fourth, but until the latter stages they had pushed Lopetegui's men - and Atletico - hard.

Villarreal's end-of-season struggles led to the sacking of Javi Calleja as coach, but in Unai Emery they have a replacement with pedigree, who also has a point to prove.

No one is expecting Villarreal to challenge for the title, but given the positives of 2019-20 and their impressive business off the field, there's certainly reason for optimism regarding a top-four push. Whether that also puts them in touch with the leaders depends on the form of Barca, Madrid and Atletico.

Defensively they will need to improve – 49 goals conceded meant only two teams in the top 10 let in more. At the other end of the pitch, they netted 63, making them the third-highest scorers in the division.

With Paco Alcacer, Gerard Moreno and Samuel Chukwueze all still there, it seems unlikely they will suddenly have problems in attack this term.

Their mentality was also questioned at times and it's easy to understand why when you consider they gained just four points from losing positions, while they also spurned 52 big chances. Although a slight decrease from the season before (54), those totals of big chances gone begging in each of the last two years were a significant increase on the previous three campaigns.

One of the main differences between Villarreal and Sevilla last season was the latter's superior resilience, as they gained three times as many points (12) from losing positions, but the right coach can inspire changes in such areas – Emery had the very same effect on Los Nervionenses in their run of three successive Europa League wins from 2014 to 2016.

He may have been criticised back then for not doing better in LaLiga, but in Europe Emery's Sevilla never knew when they were beaten and always seemed to have immense belief.

Villarreal will do well to mount a title challenge, that much is clear, but they look set to be a force to be reckoned with. The Yellow Submarine can summon everything necessary to make a splash in 2020-21.

Jadon Sancho has been tipped to swap Borussia Dortmund for Manchester United.

But the England international remains in Germany and United are growing frustrated.

Could United move on from the Dortmund sensation?

 

TOP STORY – UNITED READY TO PULL PLUG ON SANCHO

Manchester United are ready to give up on signing Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho, according to the Daily Star.

Sancho has emerged as United's top transfer target, but the Premier League giants have been unable to negotiate a deal with Dortmund.

With United and Dortmund apart in their valuation of Sancho, the Red Devils are frustrated and could turn to alternative targets.

Juventus attacker Douglas Costa, Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix and Real Madrid outcast Gareth Bale are possible options.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca claims Barcelona are contemplating a loan move for Arsenal full-back Hector Bellerin, who left Camp Nou for the Gunners in 2011. Paris Saint-Germain have also been linked, while Barca will only target the Spaniard if they are able to part with Nelson Semedo.

- Staying at Camp Nou and Barca are targeting Sevilla's star centre-back Jules Kounde. The front page of Saturday's Mundo Deportivo says Barca could wait 12 months to secure a deal. Mundo Deportivo also reports Emerson could be included in a deal to prise Lyon captain Memphis Depay to the embattled LaLiga giants.

Tottenham have had an offer for Torino striker Andrea Belotti rejected, according to Gianluca Di Marzio. Spurs proposed a loan deal with an option to buy the Italy international for €50million (£46m). Di Marzio also claims Tottenham will not be signing Napoli forward Arkadiusz Milik, who has been linked to Roma and Juventus.

Chelsea are ready to loan out winger Calum Hudson-Odoi, says 90Min. The Englishman has previously been linked to Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.

- Remaining at Stamford Bridge and Fabrizio Romano reports Chelsea will consider a move for West Ham's Declan Rice after having a bid accepted for Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.

Inter are ready to sell defender Milan Skriniar as they eye Hellas Verona's Marash Kumbulla, according to Calciomercato. It comes as Nerazzurri boss Antonio Conte tries to sign Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante and full-back Marcos Alonso.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid comprised LaLiga's top three for an eighth consecutive season in 2019-20.

The big three of this era in Spain's top fight have not been apart since Valencia came in third in 2011-12 - 30 points shy of second-place Barca.

The order has shuffled into various configurations since, most sensationally when Atleti pipped the Blaugrana to finish top of the pile in 2013-14.

Madrid and Barcelona have cashed in on the superclub era, aided by arguably the two finest footballers of all-time, while Atletico gradually gained the weight they once punched above to become their country's third heavy hitter.

Nevertheless, each club heads into the new campaign with cracks appearing. If the end of an empire isn't quite upon us, it might be closing in.

MESSI, KOEMAN AND CATASTROPHE. WHAT IS GOING ON AT BARCELONA?

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

It is impossible to know whether Ronald Koeman has dwelt upon the wisdom of Oscar Wilde as he arrives at the apparent end of Barcelona's age of decadence, but there is something devastating about the timing of the Dutchman getting the job he has always coveted.

Indeed, it speaks volumes over how much Koeman wanted to come 'home' to Camp Nou that he would do so under an entirely discredited president to preside over an aging squad left somewhere close to mutiny by a humiliation of historic proportions.

Koeman did say he views Lionel Messi as key part of his project at Barca. And he has him, although there is the monumental catch of context.

In an explosive interview where he focused on everyone's fault but his own - a Leo culpa, if you will - Messi insisted he was only sticking around because Bartomeu had gone back on his word to him and made a departure financially "impossible".

"The truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle and cover holes as things go by," Messi told Goal Spain, in a remarkably damning inditement of those who remain his employers and team-mates.

Ivan Rakitic has gone, Luis Suarez is going and Koeman apparently wants to sign a selection of the Netherlands international players he left behind to take on the poisoned chalice of a lifetime.

As Messi allude to, decline has been eating away at Barcelona for some time. By the time they surrendered LaLiga to Real Madrid after the coronavirus hiatus - performances that effectively condemned Quique Setien's doomed reign even before the 8-2 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich - they had scored fewer goals (86), conceded more (38), had fewer shots (494), won fewer games (25) and lost more (six) than in any of their past five LaLiga seasons.

The potential saving grace - at the same time a damning indictment of the elite European game in the 21st century - is it seems there is only so far that a club on course for a $1billion record turnover before COVID-19 took hold should realistically be able to fall.

Even if the sum of Koeman's transfer incomings are some Oranje foot soldiers and Manchester City youngster Eric Garcia, a functional defensive set-up in front of the excellent Marc-Andre ter Stegen, a smooth midfield alliance between Frenkie de Jong and Miralem Pjanic and a delightful forward line featuring Messi, Antoine Griezmann, the prodigious Ansu Fati and the returning Philippe Coutinho is an assortment it is not too difficult to imagine as a championship-winning one.

MAGIC OF CHOLISMO STARTING TO FADE

Atletico do not have the luxury of mismanagement on the scale of which Josep Maria Bartomeu has shambolically overseen at Barcelona. At best they'd be Valencia; at worst they'd be playing Segunda Division football.

March's rousing Champions League triumph that unseated European champions Liverpool at Anfield showed Los Colchoneros retain an unmatched thirst for making an unholy nuisance of themselves against Europe's aristocrats.

Unfortunately, the start-up beverage spin-off that is RB Leipzig denied them another such showdown in the latter stages of the competition in Lisbon last month - a performance and result that spoke of problems that have quietly mounted to the point Simeone will struggle to shift them as he approaches nine years at the helm.

With their backs against the wall and the bit between their teeth, few teams want to face Atletico. But in games where they are expected to win and take the game to the opposition, they increasingly appear woefully short of the right moves - the transition from reactive to pro-active football beyond them.

They were favourites to beat Leipzig but played a low percentage game and paid the price, as they did over the course of 16 LaLiga draws last season. Their 14 points dropped from winning positions marked their worst return in the past five years.

That Joao Felix came off the bench against Leipzig to win a penalty, convert it and briefly turn the game in Atleti's favour also spoke ill of Simeone's failure to get the best out of the majestically skilled Portugal forward.

Indeed, there is a mounting list of talented attackers who have failed to hit the heights under Simeone, with Griezmann something of an outlier in the aftermath of their 2013-14 success.

Back then, Atletico beat Madrid and Barca when it did not look possible. Now the Classico rivals look deeply fallible, Simeone is unable to rustle up enough of the old magic.

ZZ STAYING ON TOP?

It is not a story to live up to the self-aggrandising history of Madrid, but Zinedine Zidane's steadying hand last year saw them win the title through not messing up as much as their rivals.

Where Barca and Atleti dropped 13 and 14 points from winning positions, Madrid shelled six.

That is not to do down Zidane's achievements as a serial trophy collector. He now has two domestic titles to go with three Champions Leagues across two spells in charge.

The France great is perfectly in tune with a squad he knows well and coaxed a magnificent, career-best season out of Karim Benzema last time around.

From the resumption after lockdown until LaLiga was secured, Madrid won 10 straight matches to comprehensively overhaul Barca.

Their subsequent Champions League loss to Manchester City, where 2-1 defeats in each leg ultimately flattered the 13-time European champions, put their dominant domestic form in context.

Having led the way for much of the past decade, LaLiga's big three presently feel like they're a rung below Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and the Premier League's top two of City and Liverpool. While it is easy to see Madrid retaining Spain's top-flight for the first time since 2007-08, it is hard the see the wider continental gap closing.

Eden Hazard must improve upon a stop-start first season at the Santiago Bernabeu, while Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo and Federico Valverde have futures of giddying excitement ahead of them. However, the old guard of Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Benzema remain the core and are the wrong side of 30. Galactico-hunters no more, Los Blancos have once again been fairly quiet in the transfer market.

Zidane's skill at Madrid has been to delay a wholesale transition, even when he returned in the aftermath of Cristiano Ronaldo's 2018 departure. But the clock is ticking on the time for change and, as Madrid's biggest rivals have shown, a painful process awaits.

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