James Rodriguez has revealed he held talks with Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone last year, but Real Madrid blocked a transfer from going through.

The Colombia international joined Premier League side Everton from Real Madrid in September after struggling for playing time under Zinedine Zidane last season.

He was linked with a number of high-profile suitors before completing his eye-catching switch to Goodison Park for what later transpired to be a free deal.

Atletico were among the sides tipped to sign James at the time and the 29-year-old has revealed he was close to joining Real's city rivals.

"It was nearly a done deal to got to Atletico," he told ESPN. "I spoke with Simeone, he said I could be important, but Real didn't let me go. 

"[President] Florentino Perez knew that with Zidane there I wouldn't play much. It was a bad year and I wanted to come to Everton to play and show what I can do.

James has scored five goals and registered four assists in 18 Premier League appearances this season.

That puts him level with Richarlison for the second-most goal involvements of any Everton player in the league this term, behind only ​striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin (14 goals).

No Everton player has created more chances than his total of 31, meanwhile, with 23 of those from open play - another team high.

James has enjoyed a positive first campaign in English football, but he would not have considered joining Everton without the presence of three-time Champions League-winning coach Carlo Ancelotti.

"I'll say it with all sincerity that if Carlo wasn't here, I wouldn't have come," said James, who has not featured since February because of a thigh injury. "I'll say it with all my heart, he was one of the reasons for which I came.

"I have started to get to know the club, how they work, how they want to work, win things, play in Europe. The fact that Carlo is here was fundamental to come here, where I am learning every day.

"In these remaining [league] matches, I want to perform well. I had some physical problems for a month, but I have overcome them and it's my goal to get a European spot, hopefully in the Champions League."

Everton are eighth in the Premier League, five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea with a game in hand.

Daley Blind is hopeful he can be fit in time for the Netherlands' Euro 2020 campaign after being ruled out for the rest of Ajax's season with an ankle injury.

The 31-year-old sustained the damage during the second half of Tuesday's 7-0 World Cup 2022 qualifying victory over Gibraltar.

Blind was initially feared to have suffered knee ligament damage in the awkward fall, which left him wincing in pain and in need of a stretcher.

However, the versatile defender underwent a scan on Thursday and it was confirmed he has avoided a long-term lay-off, but he is unlikely to play again for Ajax this campaign.

Ajax provided an update on their official website and Blind said: "Today, after an examination in the hospital it turned out that fortunately there is no damage to the knee, but that the front ankle ligament of my left ankle is torn.

"I assume that my season at Ajax is over. I will have an operation next week. If everything goes well during rehabilitation, I hope that I can still make it to the Euros this summer."

"Of course I am terribly disappointed. You play football to win trophies and those trophies will be won in the coming months. Of course, I wanted to be there. It has been a wonderful season with Ajax so far. That now ends very abruptly for me."

Ajax are 11 points clear of PSV at the top of the Eredivisie, face Roma in the last eight of the Europa League and are into the final of the KNVB Beker, where Vitesse await later this month.

Vice-captain Blind has featured 34 times for Ajax in 2020-21 and started all three of the his country's World Cup qualifiers.

Fellow Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk is also in a race against time to be fit for the delayed European Championship finals, which begins for the Dutch on June 13 with a clash against Ukraine in Amsterdam. Ukraine and Austria are also in Group C.

Lucas Torreira is hopeful Arsenal will grant him permission to join Boca Juniors at the end of the season to fulfil the wish of his family following the death of his mother.

The Uruguay international has been given time off by Atletico Madrid, whom he has spent the season on loan with, after his mother lost her battle with coronavirus on Monday.

He is due to return to Arsenal at the end of the season and has another year to run on his contract, but he is ready to bring an end to his eight-year spell in Europe and return closer to home.

"I am trying to understand the situation. It is difficult to come to terms with it but as time passes, we will come to live with this pain," he told ESPN Argentina.

"My mother was 53 years old and died from coronavirus. There was an outbreak in Fray Bentos and she spent 11 days fighting but on Monday morning I received the worst news.

"I asked Atletico for some time off. 'Cholo' (head coach Diego Simeone) understood everything and they gave me a week, but I asked to stay for a little longer. 

"On Sunday I will probably return. I have to do my duty and life must continue. Atletico have been very good to me and it's important.

"It's not a violent emotion, a crazy decision because of my mother. I have always said that I want to play for Boca. I'm dying to play for Boca and I will always say it. 

"The night my mother died, one of the first to hear the news was my agent. I told him I don't want to play in Europe anymore, I want to play for Boca.

"I want to be close to my home, my family. I have a contract at Arsenal and I am on loan at Atletico but I want to go to Boca. I hope the clubs can agree."

Torreira, a reported £26million signing from Sampdoria in July 2018, fell out of favour under Mikel Arteta at Arsenal and has struggled for playing time in his season on loan with Atletico.

The 25-year-old has started just five times in all competitions, the most recent of those coming against Cadiz in January.

"It's been two years since I was enjoying myself personally. I haven't had continuity," he said. "Arsenal hurt me and at Atletico, I don't play like I want.

"I just want to play for Boca. I have made my decision. I will do it for my father. He asked me and I'm going to do it."

Manchester United striker Edinson Cavani is another Premier League player that has been linked with a switch to Boca, who won a 34th Argentine Primera Division title last season.

Asked about the prospect of linking up with international team-mate Cavani at the iconic La Bombonera, Torreira said: "I talk a lot with Cavani, he's a great guy.

"I hope I can come and share a team with him. We have a nice relationship."

Juventus forward Paulo Dybala has apologised for breaking coronavirus protocols by attending a get-together with a couple of his team-mates.

Italian newspaper La Stampa reported on Thursday that police were called to the house of Weston McKennie late on Wednesday to break up a party attended by up to 20 people.

Arthur is also alleged to have been in the Turin property and all three players are said to be facing large fines, and possibly a suspension, for attending the lockdown gathering.

Juventus have yet to officially comment on the reports, but Dybala took to Instagram on Thursday to confirm he was present.

"I know that in such a difficult moment for the world with COVID it would've been better not to make a mistake, but I was wrong to stay out to dinner," he said.

"It wasn't a party, but I was wrong anyway and I apologise."

Juventus announced earlier on Thursday that Leonardo Bonucci and Merih Demiral have tested positive for COVID-19.

Erling Haaland's agent Mino Raiola was pictured arriving in Barcelona on Thursday, but Borussia Dortmund director Michael Zorc insisted the club have "made our intentions clear" over the striker's future amid ongoing links with the LaLiga giants.

Barca are one of a number of elite teams to have been linked with the Norway international following a goal-laden 15-month spell with Dortmund that has seen him score 49 goals in 49 appearances.

Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Manchester United have also showed a reported interest in Haaland, who is believed to have a €75million release clause in his contract that comes into effect from 2022.

But talk of a move to Camp Nou at the end of this season intensified on Thursday after Spanish outlet Sport published a video showing Raiola and Haaland's father, Alf-Inge, emerging from an airport and being driven away in a private car.

It was reported that the driver is a member of Joan Laporta's staff, suggesting Raiola and Haaland senior were on the way to a meeting with the recently elected Barca president.

However, when questioned about the alleged meeting, Dortmund chief Zorc said he is "relaxed" about the 20-year-old's future and joked his entourage may have jetted to Catalonia for another reason entirely.

"I spoke to Mino Raiola yesterday. We've made our intentions very clear," he told Sport1

"There's no problem if Alfie and Mino want to sunbath on the Mediterranean Sea. I am relaxed because I know what we want!"

Speaking last week, Raiola suggested he was too cautious when moving star client Haaland from Salzburg to Dortmund in January 2020 and hinted the in-demand striker may seek pastures new in the next window.

Haaland has scored 21 goals in as many Bundesliga games this term, adding another 10 from six games in the Champions League, a competition in which he tops the scoring charts.

Leonardo Bonucci has joined Juventus team-mate Merih Demiral in testing positive for coronavirus, the Serie A giants have confirmed.

The 33-year-old returned from international duty with Italy on Thursday, a day after the Italian Football Federation announced four members of staff had also returned positive tests.

Bonucci will now begin a period of self-isolation that could keep him out of Serie A games with Torino, Napoli and Genoa over the next 10 days.

A statement on Juventus' official website on Thursday read: "Leonardo Bonucci, upon returning from the Italian national team, this morning underwent a diagnostic molecular test for COVID-19 which came back positive. 

"The player has already been placed in home isolation."

Juve confirmed earlier on Thursday that fellow defender Merih Demiral tested positive for COVID-19 on March 26 while away on international duty with Turkey.

Demiral was granted permission to return to Italy on a specially arranged flight and is isolating at the club's J Hotel.

According to reports from Italy, meanwhile, Juve intend to fine a trio of players for breaching coronavirus restrictions by attending a party.

Erling Haaland was back at the centre of Barcelona transfer speculation as his agent and father were pictured arriving in the Spanish city on Thursday.

The Spanish newspaper Sport published video on its website that showed agent Mino Raiola and Alf-Inge Haaland emerging from an airport and being driven away in a private car.

It was reported that the driver was a member of Barcelona president Joan Laporta's staff, pointing to Raiola and Haaland senior being on the way to a meeting with the newly elected Camp Nou chief.

Haaland has been long linked with a move to Barcelona, having dazzled in 15 months with Borussia Dortmund and emerged as a target for elite clubs across Europe.

Among those reported to have shown interest in the Norwegian are Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Manchester United, suggesting Barca may face a major battle to secure the 20-year-old, should he become available later this year.

Haaland is reputed to have a clause in his Dortmund contract that would allow him to leave for €75million at the end of the 2021-22 campaign, although this has never been confirmed by club officials.

His value even in a slightly deflated market is significantly higher than that at present, which may mean a departure at the end of this season suits all parties if there is no prospect of Haaland having a long-term stay in Dortmund.

Barcelona have been hit hard in economic terms by the COVID-19 crisis, but president Laporta will want to make his mark after returning to office last month, 11 years after his first stint in charge ended.

For Haaland to join Madrid would be a huge blow to Barca at a time when there is uncertainty over Lionel Messi's future. Blaugrana captain Messi is due to reach the end of his contract at the end of this season and has been repeatedly linked with PSG.

The club's record goalscorer may see the arrival of an exciting figure such as Haaland as an incentive to stay in Catalonia and a sign of Barcelona's ambition.

Since leaving Salzburg to join Dortmund in mid-season during the 2019-20 campaign, Haaland has scored 49 goals in 49 games across all competitions at club level, including 33 in 31 appearances this term.

Florentino Perez has called on Real Madrid's electoral board to set in motion the process of deciding the presidency and board of directors.

Madrid have not needed to carry out a full election since 2006, after the end of Perez's first spell in charge, which lasted just over six years.

Ramon Calderon won that vote but subsequently resigned in 2009, and Perez – who had overseen the 'Galactico era' in the early 2000s – returned for a second term as the only candidate to officially stand.

A similar situation has presented itself this time around, with Perez currently the only candidate in the race, meaning there would be no vote unless another member puts themselves forward.

However, Spanish businessman Enrique Riquelme, did last week suggest that he intends to run.

In a statement issued on their official website, Madrid said: "The president, having heard today's meeting of the board of directors, and in accordance with article 38, section b of the Real Madrid C.F. statutes, has asked the electoral board to initiate the procedure to call elections for president and board of directors."

Should it go ahead, Madrid's election is unlikely to be as tumultuous as that of Barcelona, with Joan Laporta having last month won the vote to take over at Camp Nou.

It came after former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, along with Barca's board of directors, resigned late last year.

Central Coast Mariners survived missing two penalties in a top-of-the-table battle as they beat Adelaide United 2-1 to surge four points clear at the top of the A-League.

Goalkeeper Joe Gauci saved spot-kicks from Matt Simon and Oliver Bozanic, and Adelaide went ahead between those dramatic moments when Kusini Yengi struck in the 48th minute.

Gauci, 20, had kicked away Simon's powerful strike and dived full length to push away Bozanic's penalty, but the goalkeeper could not defy the Mariners all night and was finally beaten in the 72nd minute.

Captain Bozanic found space on the edge of the penalty area and drilled a powerful drive into the left corner for an equaliser, and four minutes later Alou Kuol slotted in after Gauci was beaten to the ball by Josh Nisbet, who cut back for his fellow substitute to convert.

The result ended Adelaide's six-game winning streak, but they stay second in the table.

Third-placed Melbourne City's own six-game run of victories was halted by state rivals Western United, who snatched a 2-1 win despite falling behind early on.

Craig Noone struck from close range in the 12th minute after combining cleverly with Jamie Maclaren.

But Western United drew level in the 61st minute when Besart Berisha volleyed across goal for Lachlan Wales to head home against his former team.

Substitute Alessandro Diamanti then set Wales clear on the right flank with a terrific pass, and the scorer of the first goal repaid the earlier favour from Berisha by feeding his team-mate inside the Melbourne City penalty area.

Berisha turned sharply and smashed a low shot in off the right post for the 66th-minute winner, lifting Western United three places to seventh in the table.

Eric Garcia showed exactly why Manchester City wanted to keep him in the Premier League as Spain took their first steps towards the World Cup, according to Luis Enrique.

The 20-year-old defender looks certain to leave City for Barcelona at the end of the season, having turned down the chance of a new contract with the Premier League leaders.

Garcia has not started a Premier League match since October, making just two fleeting substitute appearances in the competition since then, with Pep Guardiola mainly trusting John Stones and Ruben Dias.

He played three consecutive World Cup qualifying games for Spain during the international break, however, lining up against Greece, Georgia and Kosovo.

"The situation with Eric is not normal," Spain coach Luis Enrique said. "We took some risks by calling a player who has played very little this season, but we trust him so much and his level is so high that, after three months without playing, he is able to come here and play three high-level games.

"He is a very intelligent player, you would never believe how young he is given how he behaves on the pitch. He gives us a lot of confidence in defence, he is very skilled, so that is why Man City have been trying to re-sign his contract for a long while, although he made a different decision."

Former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique added: "We are so happy to have a player like Eric. He leads our defence and is very communicative on the pitch and smart.

"He knows what to do every time and also is aware of the aspects he has to improve. Even though he does not play at his club, he can come here and do it well. He has just proved his [high] level the week he has been here."

An emotional Igor Angelovski suggested a sensational win over Germany was comparable to European Championship success for his North Macedonia side.

In the biggest shock of the World Cup qualifying campaign so far, North Macedonia claimed a remarkable 2-1 victory in Duisberg on Wednesday.

North Macedonia are set to make their major tournament debut as an independent nation at Euro 2020 and have now also improbably boosted their Qatar 2022 hopes, sitting above Germany in Group J, three points behind early leaders Armenia.

Angelovski's men had just 30.5 per cent of possession against the 2014 World Cup winners but were clinical when their chances came.

Veteran forward Goran Pandev and midfielder Eljif Elmas scored as North Macedonia registered six goal attempts, of which three were on target.

Germany had 11 efforts but only twice found their aim, as Timo Werner incredibly missed from point-blank range after Ilkay Gundogan's penalty had pulled the hosts back level.

For triumphant head coach Angelovski, the victory was particularly precious as he reflected on a difficult time in his personal life.

"What can I tell you? I can't, out of emotion, out of happiness," he said. "We made the North Macedonians proud and happy. This is like winning the European Championship.

"I came here with these guys because they promised to celebrate. My wife was in the hospital, she had COVID-19 symptoms, luckily she's better now.

"The kids were giving me support. Thank you all. What more can I say? Just to cry."

Unsurprisingly, 37-year-old record goalscorer Pandev - once a Champions League winner with Inter - was picked out for special praise.

He scored with his only shot from his sole touch inside the Germany box but crucially provided an outlet, his average position the furthest forward of any North Macedonia player.

"Pandev is an amazing man, the leader of this team," Angelovski said. "They fought like lions to write the history of their state; I'm proud of these guys."

Lionel Messi has been tipped to leave Barcelona for either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

But Haaland could reportedly unlock Messi's future.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND TO CITY MEANS BARCA STAY FOR MESSI?

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland could hold the key to Lionel Messi's future at Barcelona, according to the front page of Thursday's Diario AS.

Haaland is a player in demand, linked with Barca, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

City have been tipped to sign Messi, but should they step up their pursuit of Haaland, the Premier League leaders could reportedly drop their interest in the Barca captain.

 

ROUND-UP

- Mundo Deportivo says new Barca president Joan Laporta is preparing a contract renewal for Messi, who is set to become a free agent at season's end.

- Bayern Munich are eyeing a move for Tottenham star Son Heung-min, claims Football Insider. Son has reportedly been offered a bumper new contract by Spurs, but the former Bayer Leverkusen forward is wanted in Munich.

- Sporting CP's Joao Palhinha, Borussia Monchengladbach star Denis Zakaria and Sander Berge of Sheffield United are on the list of midfielders to replace City veteran Fernandinho, reports A Bola.

- Gazzetta dello Sport says Juventus and Barca are interested in Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli. The Italy defender is out of contract in 2022 and is reportedly seeking a €6million-a-year contract.

Napoli are eyeing Lazio head coach Simone Inzaghi and sporting director Igli Tare, claims Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli. Gennaro Gattuso has been tipped to leave Napoli at the end of the season, with ex-Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri, Luciano Spalletti and Hellas Verona's Ivan Juric among the possible replacements. But Lazio duo Inzaghi and Tare are being monitored to replace Gattuso and Cristiano Giuntoli in Naples.

United are interested in Lille defender Sven Botman, according to Fabrizio Romano. Sevilla star Jules Kounde has been on United's radar but the club's asking price of €80m (£68m) is too steep.

- Romano also says there is no agreement with United and Paul Pogba over a new contract. Pogba has been linked with former club Juve, Madrid and PSG.

Germany head coach Joachim Low was left "bitter" after the country's shock loss at home to North Macedonia in World Cup qualifying.

Low's Germany were sensationally humbled in Duisburg, where the four-time world champions suffered a 2-1 defeat on Wednesday.

Ilkay Gundogan had cancelled out Goran Pandev's opener before Eljif Elmas restored North Macedonia's lead with five minutes remaining as Germany lost a World Cup qualifier for the first time since September 2001 – a run of 35 matches.

The defeat left Germany third in Group J, level on points with North Macedonia and three points adrift of pacesetters Armenia, who have won all three matches so far.

"We are hugely disappointed after this bitter defeat tonight," Low, who will vacate his post following the rescheduled Euro 2020, told reporters. "We did not manage to find our way into the game like we did in the last two games.

"We had some good approaches but this was a real setback. As a first analysis, there are a couple of reasons for that. We were lacking pace and fast passing, we ran a lot with the ball and had many passing errors while moving forward. We did not find any appropriate means against the deep positioned North Macedonians.

"We also ran into many counterattacks due to passing errors and bad positioning. We did not have any access to our opponent when they were in the box during these counter attacks.

"We were equally staffed against the opponent during both goals. So positioning in the box was bad. But we also missed many chances in the first half and didn't punish them. We had a chance to go in front where it was two against one with Ilkay and Timo Werner.

"You had the feeling that this missed chance broke the team mentally. We tried it but we couldn't play as we usually managed to. We just weren't able to win this game today."

England international, Declan Rice, is confident the Three Lions have plenty of firepower to choose from in light of West Ham teammates Michail Antonio’s decision to represent the Jamaica national team.

The 30-year-old striker, who has Jamaican parents, announced his decision to change nationalities a few months ago and is expected to join up with the Caribbean team at the end of the EPL season.

The powerful forward was called up by England in 2016 but has never made an appearance for the country.  Despite consternation raised in some quarters, regarding the prospect of England losing the forward, Rice believes the team has plenty of cover and tipped his teammate for success with the Reggae Boyz.

“He’s such a handful. I see it every day in training. He’s so strong. He holds the ball up well. He makes efficient runs in behind. He’s a defender's worst nightmare,” Rice told the UK Dailey Star.

“But look he’s chosen his allegiance with Jamaica now. I’m sure he’s going to have a great time there,” he added.

“We’ve got other strikers that pledged themselves to England that haven’t got in the squad lately who can easily fill the boots of Antonio, so, we’re well prepared with strikers.”

The Hammers star Antonio has seven goals and five assists so far this season, as West Ham are locked in battle for a top-four finish.

 

Germany dropped their first points in World Cup 2022 qualifying as they suffered a shock 2-1 loss at home to North Macedonia on Wednesday.

Joachim Low's side had defeated Iceland and Romania in their first two Group J games without conceding, but they were stunned in Duisburg by Eljif Elmas' late goal.

Veteran forward Goran Pandev had earlier given North Macedonia a half-time lead, which Ilkay Gundogan cancelled out with a contentious penalty for Ezgjan Alioski's challenge on Leroy Sane.

But Germany, ranked 52 places above their opponents in the FIFA rankings, saw substitute Timo Werner miss a glorious chance shortly before Elmas converted Arijan Ademi's cutback to snatch a famous win for the visitors.

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