Newcastle United have joined the race for Jude Bellingham, with reports suggesting they are not dissuaded by Borussia Dortmund's potential £133million (€150m) asking price.

Bellingham, 19, has become one of the top prospects in world football since arriving in Germany, becoming a key player for Dortmund and impressing at the World Cup with England.

The Birmingham City youth product, who already has 22 senior caps to his name, has become more of a goal-scoring threat this season, with his 10 goals in all competitions already matching the combined total from his past two seasons. 

Bellingham netted in each of his first four Champions League fixtures this campaign, joining Manchester City striker Erling Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe as the only teenagers to ever score in four consecutive games in the competition.

The world's biggest clubs are set to fight it out for the young phenomenon's services, and Newcastle want in on the action.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE ENTER BELLINGHAM CHASE

According to Sport Bild, the main four contenders for Bellingham are Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Real Madrid, but "Newcastle United are trying to get into the game".

The report says Bellingham has ruled out both Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain but gives no indication that Bellingham would consider a move to St James' Park.

That could change if Newcastle – who have lost just once this Premier League season – qualify for the Champions League.

It also states Dortmund will demand "up to" £133m (€150m), but with so many wealthy, interested parties, it is hard to imagine the final figure falls below that without any unforeseen injury concerns.

 

ROUND-UP

– The New York Times is reporting Fiorentina were left frustrated by Chelsea owner Todd Boehly after he personally called them with a low-ball offer for 26-year-old Morocco midfielder Sofyan Amrabat on deadline day.

– Leeds United winger Jack Harrison, 26, is expected to sign a new contract with the club after his £20m transfer to Leicester City was called off at the 11th hour, per Sky Sports.

– According to Calciomercato, Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric has received interest from both MLS and Saudi Arabian clubs, but he has his heart set on a contract extension at the Santiago Bernabeu.

– The Telegraph is reporting Chelsea's academy players fear a mass exodus if the club misses out on Champions League qualification, as they will need to balance their books with some sales.

– According to The Independent, Everton do not feel 30-year-old free agent Isco has the physical profile to suit the Premier League and are no longer considering his signing.

Carlo Ancelotti is optimistic Karim Benzema will not miss Sunday's trip to Real Mallorca despite limping out of Real Madrid's win against Valencia, but defender Eder Militao's injury is of greater concern.

Benzema teed up second-half goals for Marco Asensio and Vinicius Junior on Thursday, as Madrid moved to within five points of LaLiga leaders Barcelona with a 2-0 victory over Los Che.

However, the reigning Ballon d'Or holder limped out of the contest with an apparent thigh problem on the hour mark, after Militao had been replaced in the first half for what looked to be a groin issue.

While Ancelotti is hopeful of having his star striker available for Madrid's final league game before their Club World Cup campaign, Militao's initial prognosis is less encouraging.

Asked about the condition of the duo after Thursday's win, Ancelotti said: "Karim seems like a slight problem and Militao will not be fit on Sunday."

Benzema has been involved in 11 goals in his last 12 appearances for Madrid in all competitions, having only registered five goal contributions in his first nine matches this season.

After Sunday's trip to Mallorca, Madrid jet off to Morocco for the Club World Cup, where they will meet either the Seattle Sounders or Al Ahly in a semi-final tie next Wednesday.

Madrid's involvement in that competition means there will be no respite during a congested period, but Ancelotti is pleased with how Los Blancos have coped in recent weeks.

"January was a hard month after the World Cup and we've turned out well. We're going to see in February. It doesn't stop here," Ancelotti said.

"Luckily, they have put the game on Sunday for both us [and Barcelona]. Imagine they had put ours on Saturday night!"

Thibaut Courtois declared Vinicius Jr needs to be protected after he was on the receiving end of a horrendous challenge from Gabriel Paulista on Thursday.

The Brazilian defender kicked out at his compatriot, who had doubled Real Madrid's lead against Valencia to mark his 200th club appearance in style.

Los Blancos emerged 2-0 victors at Santiago Bernabeu to edge closer to leaders Barcelona, yet it was the challenge on Vinicius that left the biggest impression.

Courtois questioned why Vinicius was subject to such treatment, but praised the referee for taking the appropriate action.

"I don't know why he was kicked in that way, we need to protect him," he told LaLigaTV.

"He's a player who dribbles a lot, tries to go past defenders and defenders don't like it. It's the way he is as a player.

"We need him to be that way, we need him to be like that against defenders.

"He receives a lot of kicks and tonight I'm just happy the referee acted and had the bravery to give the red card. The ball is not there, there's no intent to get the ball.

"Even if it was one of us had made that challenge then I would have said yes, it has to be a red card."

Vinicius Junior marked his 200th Real Madrid appearance in style with the second goal in a 2-0 win against Valencia.

The Brazilian burst into space from inside his own half to double Los Blancos' lead, just 90 seconds after Marco Asensio's stunning strike opened the scoring at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid, having failed to score on Sunday against Real Sociedad, encountered similar frustration in the first half and saw an Antonio Rudiger header disallowed juts before half-time.

That did not deter Carlo Ancelotti's side, who responded in style in a second period where Valencia finished with 10 men after Gabriel Paulista's dismissal.

It took just three minutes for Madrid to carve through Valencia's defence, Luka Modric feeding a pass through to Asensio but a fine save from the boot of Giorgi Mamardashvili kept him at bay.

Asensio had another chance after Karim Benzema's deft backheel into his path inside the area but Gabriel was on hand with an outstanding block to deflect the strike safely over the crossbar.

Los Blancos thought they had found their breakthrough on the brink of half-time, Rudiger flicking a header in off the right-hand post, but referee Javier Alberola Rojas chalked the effort off for a foul from Benzema on Yunus Musah as Modric's corner was whipped in.

Six minutes after the restart, the hosts finally broke the deadlock. It was third-time lucky for Asensio, who picked up possession outside the box and unleashed a ferocious left-footed drive that left Mamardashvili stranded.

The lead was doubled just 90 seconds later, Vinicius bursting into space down the left and driving into the area and slotting a comfortable finish beneath the Valencia stopper.

Valencia's problems got worse when Gabriel was given his marching orders for a horrendous hack on compatriot Vinicius, who was fortunate to avoid injury.

Erling Haaland holds "the key to the door" when the striker decides he wants to leave Manchester City, according to his agent Rafael Pimenta.

The Norway international has taken the Premier League by storm since signing for Pep Guardiola's side from Borussia Dortmund ahead of this season.

Haaland has 25 goals after just 19 top-flight appearances for City following his fourth league hat-trick of the season in a 3-0 thumping of Wolves on January 22.

After already surpassing the tally that Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-min (23 each) recorded to win the 2021-22 Golden Boot, the 22-year-old is the most clinical finisher in world football.

Real Madrid have repeatedly been credited with an interest in the forward, whose agent suggested Haaland has the freedom to choose to leave City whenever he pleases.

"I am in favour of freedom. It's my battle," Pimenta told Spanish outlet AS. "I always say that one of my priorities as an agent is to offer the player what I call 'the key to the door'.

"When a player goes to a club, I do everything I can to create the conditions for the key to the door to be in his hands. And if tomorrow you can't stand being there anymore because you don't like it, or you're not paid well, or because your wife wants to live in Paris? Then you leave, right?

"I don't like it when my player is not free to decide. I've done every contract in this agency for the last 25 years. There wasn't a single time a player said 'I want to leave' and couldn't do it."

Haaland's main focus at present, though, will be surpassing Alan Shearer and Andy Cole's single-season Premier League record of 34 goals, with 18 league games remaining for title hopefuls City.

Real Madrid have agreed a deal with Rayo Vallecano that will see left-back Fran Garcia return to the Santiago Bernabeu later this year.

The 23-year-old initially left the current LaLiga champions on loan during the 2020-21 season, before signing permanently for Rayo ahead of the 2021-22 campaign.

However, with interest from Bayer Leverkusen and Premier League teams in January, Carlo Ancelotti's side exercised their first refusal option, meaning the defender will return to Madrid after the conclusion of this season in a deal worth €5million.

Speaking to Cadena COPE radio, Rayo president Raul Martin Presa lauded Madrid’s decision to let Garcia see out the season with his side, despite a recent injury to Madrid's first-choice left-back Ferland Mendy.

"Madrid have behaved like gentlemen," he said. "They could have [taken him] now, especially with the situation they have with Mendy, but we spoke to them and out of respect to Rayo, to not hurt Rayo, they've behaved like gentlemen.

"They've avoided that he goes to Leverkusen, in their own interests obviously, because they think he's a player who can help them."

Madrid academy product Garcia has impressed greatly since joining Rayo, starting 34 LaLiga games last season and all 19 games so far this season.

The Premier League will always lead in Europe when it comes to transfers, but Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti vows his side will not surrender easily.

Clubs in the English top flight spent over a record-breaking £800million during the January window, led by a slew of big-money moves from Chelsea, who broke the competition's transfer record by signing Enzo Fernandez.

The financial outlay to bring in players to the Premier League saw the competition outspend the combined totals of LaLiga, Ligue 1, Serie A and the Bundesliga.

Speaking ahead of his side's Thursday clash with Valencia, Ancelotti suggested European clubs will always trail those across the English channel when it comes to spending sprees, though noted the Premier League teams will not necessarily dominate in UEFA competitions.

"We know what happens there," he said. "With the television rights, they can spend higher amounts. It will continue like this.

"Europe will follow the Premier League, it gives them an advantage.

"Even so, the competition against them, in Europe, it will not end."

Ancelotti's side are preparing for a busy four-week period that will see them juggle matches across four competitions, including the Club World Cup.

Though Madrid are ready to rise to the challenge, Ancelotti said the congested schedule laid out by UEFA and FIFA is a pressing concern for big clubs.

"We're in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, the last 16 of the Champions League and the Club World Cup," he added. "We don't throw away competitions.

"It is a [tough] calendar. LaLiga wants to do its thing, FIFA wants to do its thing, UEFA wants to do its thing. It doesn't let us have days off.

"The calendar is a very serious issue. We are excited to fight in all these competitions, but the calendar limit is being exceeded. We have to do something to avoid this."

The Club World Cup begins on Wednesday as seven teams compete to become world champions.

Representatives from each confederation will take part over 11 days in Morocco, with Real Madrid favourites to end up lifting the trophy.

That is not to disrespect any of the other participants, but Europe's stranglehold on the competition simply cannot be denied.

Although South American teams won the first three editions in its current format, the only occasion in the last 15 where the Champions League winners have not triumphed was in 2012 when Corinthians defeated Chelsea in the final, the last time Europe's best did not succeed.

With four-time Club World Cup winners Madrid present, can anyone realistically stop Carlo Ancelotti's men? Stats Perform has taken a look at the other participants.

CONMEBOL – Flamengo

It would be fair to assume that, as the only other confederation to claim the prize, the South American representatives will always be seen as the biggest challengers to Europe.

Flamengo have participated in the Club World Cup before, having reached the final in 2019 only to lose 1-0 to Liverpool after extra time.

The Mengao have faced some recent upheaval with head coach Dorival Junior leaving despite winning the Copa do Brasil and Copa Libertadores, just the third time they had prevailed in South America's premier competition.

Former Fenerbahce and Corinthians boss Vitor Pereira arrived in December and will be relying on star striker Gabriel Barbosa to fire his team to glory, as the ex-Inter man did when he scored the only goal of the Libertadores final against Athletico Paranaense in October.

Despite promising young midfielder Joao Gomes leaving for Premier League side Wolves, Pereira will hope his new team can at least make their way to the February 11 final when they face either hosts Wydad Casablanca or Al Hilal in the final four.

CONCACAF – Seattle Sounders

The Sounders are carrying the hopes not only of Seattle but of MLS as a whole. Due to a series of CONCACAF Champions League heartbreaks for American and Canadian clubs prior to Seattle's triumph last May, the league has had a long, long wait for representation on the world stage.

It is fitting then that the Sounders should be the team to do it, having broken so many barriers since arriving in MLS in 2009, selling out stadiums, enjoying instant success and signing big-name stars from European clubs.

Although the 2022 season saw the Sounders' ever-present record in the MLS playoffs ended, that was no reflection of the quality of this squad; injuries badly hampered Brian Schmetzer's side after their early-season focus on that successful Champions League campaign.

Joao Paulo is back fit again, Raul Ruidiaz provides a goal threat, Jordan Morris' pace causes problems for any defence, and captain Nicolas Lodeiro – a veteran of two World Cups – knits it all together.

The Sounders – and those watching back home – will be desperate to get through the second round and have a crack at heavyweights Madrid.

 

CAF – Wydad Casablanca

Otherwise known as Wydad AC, the Moroccans would have sealed their place regardless of being hosts after lifting the CAF Champions League in May.

Under the guidance of Walid Regragui before he left to lead the Morocco national team to the semi-finals of the World Cup, Zouhair El Moutaraji's two goals in the final against Al Ahly brought Wydad their third Champions League title.

Their record in this competition is less impressive, with their only previous involvement coming in 2017 when they were beaten by Mexico's Pachuca in the second round, before going down 3-2 to Japan's Urawa Reds in the fifth-place playoff.

Former Racing Santander and Birmingham City player Mehdi Nafti took over from Regragui after leaving LaLiga side Levante late last year, and Regragui thinks they can improve on their 2017 showing at least.

"I think the trap game is Al Hilal [second round]. If they manage to pass Al Hilal, they can go to the final against Real Madrid. Everything is possible," the Morocco coach told FIFA.com.

AFC – Al Hilal

The four-time AFC Champions League winners will compete with Wydad in the second round, with the winner going on to face Flamengo in the final four.

Ramon Diaz returned for a second spell in charge, and like several other head coaches at the Club World Cup, was not actually the one who lifted the trophy that got his team here in the first place.

Former Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim was in charge when Al Hilal beat Korea's Pohang Steelers in November 2021, before leaving by mutual consent to be replaced by Diaz.

Diaz is unsurprisingly the only former Oxford United manager at the Club World Cup, but the 63-year-old has plenty of talent to call upon in his quest for glory in Morocco.

Odion Ighalo and Luciano Vietto will be accompanied by a number of players from Saudi Arabia's impressive World Cup campaign, with Al Hilal looking to improve on their last CWC campaign when they were beaten by Chelsea in the semi-finals and Al Ahly in the third-place playoff in 2022.

CAF – Al Ahly

Al Ahly are also back again, somewhat fortuitously as they inherit Wydad's assigned host spot following the Moroccans beating them in the CAF Champions League final.

This will be the Egyptian side's eighth appearance at the Club World Cup, with their most impressive previous campaign seeing them finish third after beating Brazilian's Palmeiras on penalties in 2021.

Head coach Marcel Koller also played no part in his team's qualification for this competition, with the former Austria boss only arriving in September.

With a number of Egypt's national team players to call on, they will be hoping to repeat their previous meeting with Auckland City in the first round when they beat the New Zealanders 2-0 in 2006. 

OFC – Auckland City

This will be the 10th appearance for the Navy Blues, but they are back again after their 3-0 win against Tahiti's Venus in the 2022 OFC Champions League final.

That was overseen by head coach Albert Riera, not to be confused with the former Liverpool and Galatasaray winger, who took charge in December 2021.

Riera will be hoping to at least match his team's best ever performance at the CWC, when they came third in 2014 after winning on penalties against Mexico's Cruz Azul. 

It would take a momentous effort for anyone to stop Madrid, who somehow overcame Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool on their way to Europe's Champions League title last season.

Never say never, though.

Fierce rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid will do battle for a place in the Copa del Rey final.

LaLiga leaders Barca and Los Blancos were on Monday drawn to meet at the semi-final stage, with the winners facing either Athletic Bilbao or Osasuna.

The Blaugrana beat Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana final in Riyadh earlier this month to secure their first trophy of head coach Xavi's reign.

There will be another two El Clasico cup clashes to look forward to, with the first leg staged at Santiago Bernabeu in the week commencing February 27 and the second match at Camp Nou in the week commencing April 3.

Carlo Ancelotti's side were 3-1 winners when the two met in LaLiga in October, but Barca have since opened up a five-point lead at the summit.

Osasuna will have home advantage in their first leg against Athletic.

The final will be stage at the Estadio de la Cartuja in Sevilla on May 6.

Cristiano Ronaldo has scored many famous goals.

Undoubtedly, though, one of his most celebrated strikes came 15 years ago, on January 30, 2008.

On a winter evening at Old Trafford, Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth rocked up in fine form on the road, having won seven of their 12 away games in the Premier League.

Yet Ronaldo, in the midst of a 31-goal season in the top tier, was the difference. 

Having put Manchester United ahead in the 10th minute, Ronaldo stepped up, just under 30 yards out from goal, three minutes later.

His free-kick, taken in what would become his trademark style, went up, over the wall and swerved remarkably into the right-hand corner. David James, the Portsmouth goalkeeper, had no chance.

That goal is often thought of as the typical Ronaldo free-kick. Power, panache and pinpoint accuracy.

But is Ronaldo actually as good as a free-kick taker as that goal might suggest? Using Opta data, Stats Perform has taken a look.

Quantity, not quality?

Since that goal against Portsmouth up until the day his second spell at United ended (November 23, 2022), Ronaldo had more shots from direct free-kicks than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.

Of the 645 shots Ronaldo had, 41 resulted in a goal. That is from 700 club games, across stints at United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

On the face of it, that goal tally does not stand out as particularly impressive, at least given the fact that Ronaldo netted 619 times in total.

Yet he is behind only Lionel Messi (who else?) when it comes to goals from direct free-kicks, with the Barcelona great scoring on 51 occasions from such situations.

That gives Messi an 8.1 per cent conversion rate from free-kicks in that timeframe, in contrast to Ronaldo's 6.3 per cent.

 

Naturally, given their status in the game, Ronaldo and Messi will almost always pull rank when it comes to set-pieces, especially at a free-kick in a dangerous position.

Miralem Pjanic, who ranks third for direct free-kick goals and was a club-mate of both players at Barca and Juve respectively, boasts better conversion rate than either (nine per cent).

Neymar's 13 goals from 147 attempts gives him an 8.8 per cent success rate, while James Ward-Prowse's 12 per cent (15 from 125, though this figure of course does not account for his strike against Everton earlier in January) is close to double what Ronaldo managed.

Indeed, when ranked against players from Europe's big five leagues that scored 10 or more direct free-kicks between January 31, 2008 and November 23, 2022, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dani Parejo had lower conversion rates than Ronaldo.

Club by club

So, having established that Ronaldo's free-kick finishing was somewhat erratic following that stunner against Portsmouth, let's check on how he stacked up at each club.

Across his career in Europe's top five leagues, Ronaldo netted 48 free-kicks in all competitions, from 782 shots (6.1 per cent).

 

Thirteen of those goals came at United, with five each in his final two seasons of his first spell at the club.

Indeed, Ronaldo's peak when it came to free-kicks was definitely between the 2007-08 season and the 2013-14 campaign, when he scored 35 times from that type of dead-ball situation.

His best single season tally was six, in the 2009-10 season – his first at Madrid.

From 2014-15 onwards he did not manage more than three free-kick goals during a season, while he scored only twice from 86 such attempts while at Juve, and managed no goals from four free-kicks in his second stint at United.

One of the greats?

As well as his effort against Portsmouth, Ronaldo has many other memorable free-kicks in the bank.

His stunning, 40-yard strike against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final; a mesmerising hit from even further out in a Madrid derby in 2012; and who can forget that spellbinding, hat-trick sealing effort that secured a last-gasp draw for Portugal against Spain in a 3-3 thriller at the 2018 World Cup.

Ronaldo might have gone off the boil from dead balls since the halcyon days either side of his move from Manchester to Madrid, yet there's no doubting that when he hits them true, there's not much any goalkeeper can do.

While he may not go down as one of the greatest free-kick takers in history statistically, he has definitely been a scorer of some great free-kicks down the years.

And who knows, maybe there'll be more to come in Saudi Arabia.

Carlo Ancelotti hailed a "complete" Real Madrid performance as "one of the best of the season" despite a goalless LaLiga draw with Real Sociedad on Sunday.

Madrid sit five points behind leaders Barcelona after failing to breach Imanol Alguacil's defence in a largely one-sided encounter at Santiago Bernabeu.

La Real goalkeeper Alex Remiro thwarted a dominant Madrid with seven saves, the most he has managed in a LaLiga game this season, including three fine stops against the energetic Vinicius Junior.

Head coach Ancelotti was "satisfied" with his side's showing, though, as third-placed La Real held on for a precious point that kept them just three behind Madrid, having played a game more.

He said: "It was a shame because we played very well and we deserved to win. We played a complete game, one of the best of the season, but we didn't have any luck.

"The team is improving and growing and physically we are much better. Now the injured return and we have confidence for the coming months. 

"We have done very well with and without the ball and all we had to do was score, we came so close but it is a draw. I am satisfied because the team has played very well."

The majority of Madrid's attacking threat came through Vinicius, who attempted 21 dribbles – the most by one player in a single LaLiga match since Opta began recording in the 2005-06 season.

Dani Ceballos impressed in a rare start in the Madrid midfield, while Eduardo Camavinga showed his versatility in a fine performance at left-back.

"We pushed the 90 minutes to the fullest with great intensity, Real Sociedad has not played as they like because we pressed well up top," Ancelotti added.

"The extra time of the Copa del Rey [a 3-1 quarter-final win over Atletico Madrid on Thursday] was not noticed, we have had a high intensity for the 90 minutes.

"It was difficult to make changes because nobody deserved to leave the field, the team was playing well and I did not want to change the dynamics. 

"Ceballos and [Federico] Valverde played very well. [Camavinga] did well, he is an option because of his quality and his energy. He is not used to playing there and with Vinicius they created many chances.

"The game was good but if you don't score... now we are five points behind and we have to chase."

Madrid will hope to make up ground on Xavi's Barca when they host top-four chasers Valencia on Thursday.

Real Madrid missed the chance to move back to within three points of LaLiga leaders Barcelona after being held to a goalless draw by unlikely title challengers Real Sociedad.

Carlo Ancelotti's side dominated for large parts but drew a blank at Santiago Bernabeu just three days after downing rivals Atletico Madrid in Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final.

Goalkeeper Alex Remiro starred with numerous fine stops amid a somewhat one-sided encounter, with Madrid unable to break the impressive resistance of Imanol Alguacil's team.

The stalemate left Los Blancos trailing fierce rivals Barca by five points, with third-placed La Real three behind Ancelotti's men after Sunday's clash.

Chances were plentiful amid a frantic and free-flowing opening between two in-form sides.

A stretching Alexander Sorloth could not reach Aihen Munoz's pinpoint left-wing cross with the goal gaping, while Vinicius Junior and Asier Illarramendi went close at either end.

Remiro repelled a fizzing Toni Kroos drive and Dani Ceballos curled just wide as Madrid failed to find deserved reward for an enterprising first half.

Vinicius saw another low strike denied by Remiro's feet and Thibaut Courtois thwarted a precise Takefusa Kubo attempt after the interval.

Remiro stood tall to parry from Vinicius when one-on-one with a save that proved pivotal as La Real held on for a precious point.

What does it mean? Los Blancos dominance goes unrewarded

Madrid extended their unbeaten LaLiga run to seven games against La Real but leaving this fixture without three points may feel like an opportunity missed for Ancelotti.

Los Blancos have already secured Supercopa de Espana success and remain in the hunt for the Copa and Champions League, but chances like this in the league cannot go begging if they are to catch Barca.

However, nothing should be taken away from the impressive La Real, who continue to prove they can compete with Madrid and Barca amid a fine season under Alguacil.

Lively Vinicius blunted by Remiro

Vinicius continues to deliver for Ancelotti and Madrid this season, producing another energetic display in this game – albeit without just reward.

The Brazil winger was denied on three occasions by the resolute Remiro – who made seven saves, the most he has produced in LaLiga this term – and created two chances.

Super Sorloth run ends

Norway international Erling Haaland has repeatedly hit the headlines with Manchester City, but international team-mate Sorloth has been almost as impressive in recent weeks.

The striker was aiming to become just the third La Real player this century to score in six straight LaLiga games – after Darko Kovacevic (in 2002) and Aleksander Isak (in 2021) – but failed to threaten Madrid.

What's next?

Madrid host top-four chasers Valencia on Thursday, with La Real at home to Real Valladolid three days later.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag acknowledged Casemiro's attacking output has taken him by surprise after the Brazilian scored twice in Saturday's 3-1 FA Cup win over Reading.

United booked their passage to the fifth round thanks to the straightforward victory at Old Trafford.

Despite the ultimately routine nature of the win, it took United 54 minutes to break Reading's resistance – the breakthrough came via Casemiro's impudent scoop following Antony's incisive pass.

Casemiro then got a second four minutes later, his long-range strike taking a slight deflection en route to the bottom-right corner, with Fred getting the third with a cheeky flick.

It was just the latest in a series of exceptional performances from Casemiro since his reported £60million move from Real Madrid in August, the brace taking him to four goals for the season.

Add to that his five assists, and Casemiro's nine goal involvements for the campaign is the fourth-most in the United squad, while he also ranks fourth for open-play chances created (28).

When asked if he was surprised by Casemiro's impact in this regard, Ten Hag told ITV: "Yes. We know he's a great player. The midfield at Madrid with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, it was great…

"I think he's capable of that [being an attacking threat]. We see offensively he's a part, and he enjoys it when he can come in [to the attack].

"What I like is dynamic football with variations and many positional switches, so we have to make the opponents think, so we can make the most."

United captain Harry Maguire credited the midfielder with having a transformational effect in several aspects.

"He's done what he was brought in to do," Maguire said. "He's a phenomenal player, he has been throughout his career. You don't win what he's won without being a top player.

"He's improved the team, improved the morale and improved the performance, and it's great to have him."

Carlo Ancelotti has responded to strong claims made by Atletico Madrid CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin that Real Madrid get preferential treatment from referees, insisting corruption no longer exists in football.

In a statement published on Atletico's official website on Friday, Gil Marin claimed Real are involuntarily favoured by referees and have created an atmosphere that influences officials.

Gil's strong remarks came a day on from Atletico's 3-1 extra-time loss to fierce rivals Real in their Copa del Rey quarter-final tie, which they led for an hour until Rodrygo cancelled out Alvaro Morata's goal.

Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior won the tie for the hosts at the Santiago Bernabeu in the additional period, after Stefan Savic was sent off by man in the middle Cesar Soto Grado for two bookable offences.

However, Atletico felt Real midfielder Dani Ceballos should also have been dismissed for bringing down Thomas Lemar when already on a yellow card and with the visitors a goal to the good.

"Anyone who observes [the situation] from the outside can see that for decades the same thing almost always happens," Gil Marin added in his statement.

"Unfortunately it no longer surprises anyone, it is not news. It's very obvious and you just have to remember the story."

Ancelotti was reluctant to get involved when asked about Gil Marin's comments at a pre-match press conference previewing Sunday's LaLiga match with Real Sociedad, but he did add suggestions of referees favouring certain teams are wide of the mark.

"I have not read the comments, though I have heard something," Ancelotti said. "I don't want to talk about it. The only thing I can say is that my character is my character and I respect to all opinions.

"It was a competitive match, an even match. I think for our part we deserved to win. The rest are matters I won't talk about."

Asked if he feels referees in general are doing a good job, Ancelotti said: "It is very complicated for them. It seemed that with VAR it could help. There is no longer talk about offside, for example. 

"But everything that is not objective can create controversy. The corruption is gone compared to the past. In general, refereeing has improved a lot across Europe."

Madrid now turn focus back to LaLiga and a showdown with third-placed La Real, who lost to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey in midweek but are on a five-game winning run in the league.

"La Real are playing very well and have good dynamics," said Ancelotti, whose side trail leaders Barcelona by three points.

"We have to improve certain parts. After what happened against Atleti, it is important to play a complete match offensively and defensively."

Chelsea's busy January is showing no signs of slowing down, despite landing five players already.

The Blues, who are 10th in the Premier League, have brought in Mykhaylo Mudryk, Noni Madueke, Andrey Santos, David Datro Fofana and Benoit Badiashile during this window.

Chelsea are 10 points behind fourth-placed Manchester United and desperate for a top-four finish to bring Champions League football back to Stamford Bridge.

And another signing is now imminent.


TOP STORY –  CHELSEA AGREE DEAL FOR LYON'S GUSTO

Fabrizio Romano claims Chelsea have agreed to a deal with Lyon to sign right-back Malo Gusto.

The 19-year-old will fly to London and undergo medical tests on Saturday, with the player to join the Blues in June 2023.

Lyon will receive €30million plus add-ons and retain the player on loan for the remainder of the season.

OL head coach Laurent Blanc had said the club's board guaranteed that he would remain with the club this season, with the loan solving that roadblock. 

ROUND-UP

Arsenal will make an improved offer for Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder Moises Caicedo , according to The Telegraph. The Seagulls turned down Arsenal's initial £60m bid for the Ecuadorian, who took to social media to plead with the club to let him go.

Atletico Madrid are back in for PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe , having been interested in him during the off-season, reports Le Parisien. Kimpembe, who is out of contract in mid-2024, may slip out of favour at PSG with the French champions pushing to sign Inter's Milan Skriniar.

Real Madrid have ruled out an off-season transfer for West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice , according to The Daily Mail. The report claims Rice has "given his word" to Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta that he will join the Gunners next season.

– Roma midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo has rejected a move to Premier League strugglers Bournemouth despite the club's board travelling to Italy, preferring Milan or Tottenham instead, claims Fabrizio Romano.

– FootMercato claims PSG are readying a bid for Lyon's 19-year-old winger Rayan Cherki. PSG have previously tabled two bids for him.

– Lyon are also set to lose 22-year-old Brazilian winger Tete who will join Leicester City until the end of the season, reports The Sun. West Ham, Brentford and Leeds United were also interested in Tete.

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