It was hardly the sort of entrance that said "I'm here to save the day". Luka Modric was still putting his headband on as he rather leisurely entered the Old Trafford pitch just a few moments after Nani's controversial sending off in the Champions League last-16 second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Los Blancos were down 2-1 on aggregate after a Sergio Ramos own goal had put United in the driving seat a short while earlier, but with the hosts a man light, Jose Mourinho sent Modric on as Madrid looked to suffocate Alex Ferguson's men.

Alongside Xabi Alonso, Modric was swiftly into the thick of it as Madrid tried to pull United this way and that, and he soon took matters into his own hands with Kaka, Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo unable to break through.

Allowed space just outside the United area, Modric's motioning for a shot lured Michael Carrick out of position and the Croatian easily breezed past him before lashing an unstoppable effort in off the right-hand post just seven minutes after coming on.

It was only his second goal for the club, but as it spurred Madrid on to seal a 2-1 win and a spot in the next round thanks, Modric has regarded that match as the turning point in his career at the Santiago Bernabeu.

A perfect storm

It's easy to forget how disappointing Modric's first season at Madrid was deemed to be. After all, before Christmas, he was voted as the worst signing of the campaign in a Marca poll, beating Alex Song of Barcelona to top the charts.

Two years Modric's junior, Song has been playing his football in Djibouti this season; Modric remains, at the ripe old age of 35, arguably the finest midfielder in Spain.

There are certainly comparisons to be made with Thiago Alcantara's first season in England, with Liverpool struggling to even maintain a challenge for the top four, let alone defend their title.

Thiago was seen as the missing piece of the puzzle, the sort of central midfielder that balanced flair with genuine playmaking abilities, unlike anyone already in the squad. It was said his arrival would enable to Liverpool to play with greater flexibility, but the reality has been a little different.

Teams are playing deeper against Liverpool, as evidenced by the fact their shots outside the area per game is up from 4.6 per game to 5.2, while they are being allowed 190.4 passes in the final third each match, up from 180.9. Opponents are more confident they can keep Liverpool out if they defend deep.

Of course, Liverpool's issues this term are plentiful – injuries have been particularly frequent, and Thiago himself has lost a significant chunk of the season in this regard.

But even when he has been fit, it's difficult to say the Spain international has transformed the Reds. In fact, they have a better league win percentage (57.1) when he doesn't play than when he does (37.5), while they tend to score more goals (2.4 per game, compared to 1.1 when he is playing).

One theory for Thiago's struggles has been his apparent lack of comfort with Liverpool's intense pressing style, but the data suggests that to be a red herring.

Granted, Liverpool do engage in 18.9 pressed sequences – instances where the opposition have three or fewer passes in a move, which ends within 40 metres of their own goal – per game, with their total of 567 the most in the Premier League this term.

But Bayern averaged 16.9 per game in 2019-20 and led the way in the Bundesliga in this regard. Meanwhile, they allowed 9.8 opposition passes per defensive action, with Liverpool's PPDA this term 10.7, showing the Bayern side Thiago played in wasn't too dissimilar.

So, why would Liverpool's off-the-ball intensity impact him so much? It seems far more likely the issue is simply that he's in the middle of a perfect storm of settling into new surroundings and a new team during an injury crisis that has impacted him as well.

Changing perception

Fans can forget that players are people first and foremost. Upheaval off the pitch can have a demonstrable effect on it – of course it can, just like life at home can impact the job performance of average Joe.

This was a key element for Modric, who explained how he found it difficult to settle in initially at Real Madrid, not only because as a club they are an entirely different beast to Tottenham but also as he didn't have a pre-season and gaining fitness was always likely to be a struggle when playing catch-up.

As for fan expectations, perhaps there was also a degree of misunderstanding from Madrid supporters. Maybe they were initially expecting something more than Modric.

After all, in his final season at Spurs, Modric was a key creator. His 96 key passes in 2011-12 was bettered by only two midfielders in the Premier League (David Silva – 104, Juan Mata – 103), evidence that much of the creative burden was on his shoulders.

So, perhaps the fact his creative ingenuity wasn't being so frequently displayed at Madrid coloured opinion.

Granted, his 17 key passes in 13 league appearances between the start of the season and January 1 left a lot to be desired, but his end-of-season record of 56 was the third-highest in the Madrid squad.

Time, patience and trust were seemingly key to Modric establishing himself, but to suggest he's played the same way at Madrid as in his best season at Spurs would be incorrect – the closest he's ever got to that 96 key passes haul since was 61 in 2015-16.

In fact, when you consider a whole range of his key metrics such as passes, pass completion, chance creation, touches of the ball and defensive areas, there hasn't been drastic fluctuation between 2012-13 and now.

Certainly, his 62.6 successful passes per 90 is up from 55 in 2012-13, while his touches have improved from 80 to 86.7, but those differences certainly aren't major. The fact is his figures have been pretty steady throughout his time in LaLiga.

But at 35, he has still played in 28 of Madrid's 29 league matches this term. He's arguably more important to them than ever before.

Coming back from being a target of ridicule to becoming a club great and winning the Ballon d'Or speaks to Modric's attitude and talent, but also serves as inspiration for Thiago.

While the Spaniard has not had to contend with quite the same level of criticism, there are certainly those unconvinced by him.

With a full pre-season under his belt and allowed to gel into a settled team that isn't constantly being chopped and changed due to injuries, Thiago can surely enjoy a sparkling second season at Liverpool. After all, the data proves the Reds' pressing shouldn't be a long-term issue for him given how Bayern played.

A 25-yard strike of his own against Manchester United would go down very well right now, although a similarly decisive impact against Madrid would surely be a nice compromise for the Barcelona product.

Romelu Lukaku has starred for Inter since arriving from Manchester United in 2019.

Lukaku is spearheading Inter's quest for a Serie A title, with Antonio Conte's side clear atop the table.

His exploits, however, have not gone unnoticed in Europe.

 

TOP STORY – LUKAKU HAPPY AT INTER

Inter star Romelu Lukaku is flattered by Barcelona's interest but is not looking to leave the Nerazzurri, according to Mundo Deportivo.

Lukaku has been linked with Barca, Real Madrid and former club Chelsea following his exploits for Inter, who are closing in on the Scudetto.

But Lukaku is happy at Inter, with the Belgium international only possibly leaving San Siro should the Italian powerhouse seek to raise funds.

 

ROUND-UP

- Tuttosport reports Cristiano Ronaldo wants to see out his Juventus contract, which runs until June 2022. Ronaldo has been tipped to leave Turin, where Juve are struggling under Andrea Pirlo this season. Former clubs Madrid and United have emerged as possible destinations, as well as Paris Saint-Germain. However, Ronaldo is keen to continue at the club, should they qualify for the Champions League.

- PSG star Kylian Mbappe remains a priority signing for Madrid, claims Diario AS. Mbappe has been a long-term target in the Spanish capital, though the economic fallout following the coronavirus pandemic appears to have derailed Madrid's pursuit. But Los Blancos – also linked with in-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland – are still determined to prise Mbappe from Paris.

- Record reports United are ready to make a move for Sporting CP star Nuno Mendes, who has also been linked with Manchester City and Liverpool. United could reportedly use Alex Telles in a deal to sign the Portuguese full-back.

- Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli is eyeing a new deal amid interest from Barca and Chelsea, according to Calciomercato. Romagnoli is contracted to the Rossoneri until 2022. Barca's reported pursuit comes as they eye the likes of Bayern Munich star David Alaba, City duo Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero, Lyon forward Memphis Depay and Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.

Ronald Koeman has no intention of resting Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong ahead of next week's El Clasico, despite both players being one booking away from a suspension.

Barca will be looking to extend their 18-match unbeaten run in LaLiga when they welcome Real Valladolid to Camp Nou on Monday.

Messi and De Jong are both available for the game as the Catalan giants look to keep the pressure on leaders Atletico Madrid, who are four points better off ahead of Sunday's trip to Sevilla.

However, both players risk being banned for next Saturday's showdown with bitter rivals Real Madrid, having each been booked four times already this season.

But while the pair may be walking a disciplinary tightrope, Koeman is ready to risk star man Messi and central midfielder De Jong against Valladolid.

"We know that these two players are one card away, but it is not the time to rest players due to cards or freshness," he said at Sunday's pre-match news conference.

"We have ten games left. There is always the risk, but the best thing is to put the team out that I think can win the game."

Messi has been directly involved in 23 league goals in 2021 - 16 goals and seven assists - which is more than any other player in the top five European leagues. 

The Argentinian has had a direct hand in eight goals in his last four LaLiga games against Real Valladolid - four goals and four assists.

Those goal involvements have helped Barca to 13 wins in their previous 14 LaLiga games against Valladolid, with the only exception being a 1-0 defeat away from home in March 2014.

Sergio Gonzalez's side have won just one of their past 11 league games, but Koeman will not take Monday's opponents lightly.

"You have to be prepared, you can't think that it will be an easy game," he said. "We have to go in with a lot of energy and rhythm and be good with the ball.

"We have to get back to our level. It could be a game without problems, but you always have to work hard to win."

Gerard Pique returned to training this week after recovering from a knee problem, while Sergi Roberto is also closing in on a comeback after two months on the sidelines.

Koeman will make a late decision on whether the defensive duo are ready to play a part against Valladolid.

"They are training with the team lately. They have improved a lot," he said.

"These are decisions that will be made tomorrow after the last training session. We aren't going to take risks [with injuries], nor next week, because there are more games coming this season."

Can Borussia Dortmund keep a hold of Erling Haaland for another season?

Europe's elite are queuing up to sign the Norway sensation.

Dortmund's disappointing season could be about to force their hand.

 

TOP STORY – DORTMUND TRYING TO RETAIN HAALAND

Borussia Dortmund will try to keep Erling Haaland for another season but their hopes are fading amid the club's struggles to finish in the Bundesliga's top four, according to Fabrizio Romano.

As it stands, Dortmund are set to miss out on Champions League qualification, with the German side fifth and seven points adrift of fourth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt following Saturday's loss.

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

 

ROUND-UP

- The Mirror reports United are set to part with star goalkeeper David de Gea. The Red Devils are reportedly prepared to pay a large chunk of De Gea's remaining contract, with Dean Henderson pushing to become the club's first choice.

Haaland is ahead of Lionel Messi on City's transfer list, claims The Mirror. Pep Guardiola's City have been heavily linked with Barcelona superstar Messi, who is out of contract at season's end. But City now appear determined to prise Haaland from Dortmund as Sergio Aguero prepares to leave. Aguero has been linked with the likes of Chelsea, InterBarca, PSG and Juventus on a free transfer.

Neymar has put contract talks with PSG on hold, according to Ara, which claims he is willing to return to Barca.

- It comes as Marca says PSG are eyeing Madrid forward Vinicius Junior amid Kylian Mbappe's links with the LaLiga champions.

Zinedine Zidane is waiting to learn if Eden Hazard will be fit to return for Real Madrid against Liverpool on Tuesday.

Madrid face a huge week in their season with the home leg of their Champions League quarter-final before a Clasico with Barcelona in LaLiga.

But head coach Zidane is hoping his side will receive a boost ahead of the first meeting with the Reds.

Hazard returned from injury shortly before the international break but then missed the European tie against Atalanta with a damaged hip flexor and was unable to go away with Belgium.

Red Devils boss Roberto Martinez could not even guarantee the €100million winger would make Euro 2020, although he was "very positive".

Hazard might be back in action as soon as Tuesday, with Madrid also looking to again bring Federico Valverde into the fold.

"Hopefully we can get Valverde and Hazard back," Zidane said on Saturday. "We will see tomorrow and the day after.

"Today it was not possible but I hope that on Tuesday they can be with us."

Hazard scored six goals against Liverpool in 16 games while with Chelsea.

But he has made just 36 appearances and 29 starts for Madrid since his signing in June 2019, scoring only four times and providing five assists from 38 chances created.

Hazard certainly was not missed as Los Blancos swept aside Eibar 2-0 at a stormy Estadio Alfredo di Stefano.

Marco Asensio and Karim Benzema scored in either half, while the Spain forward also hit the crossbar, opposing goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic made six saves and three of Madrid's four offsides saw goals disallowed.

"The first half, in general, was complete, with good feelings," Zidane said. "It's what I told the players.

"Then, with the storm, there were 20 difficult minutes to start the second.

"We have to recover well because we have a week with important games in the Champions League and the league. They will be entertaining.

"We must continue like this. There was a difficult moment in the season and now we have to take advantage of the current one, which is good."

Ahead of league leaders Atletico Madrid and fellow challengers Barca playing this weekend, Madrid moved up to second, three points off the summit.

That promising position means Zidane will prioritise neither domestic action nor their European exploits.

"We do not look at that," he said. "We are in the day-to-day. We are thinking about today's game, which we did very well.

"We are not going to think about one competition or the other; we are alive in both. Now you have to enjoy the moment. We have done nothing - we have to continue."

Thibaut Courtois, required to make four saves against Eibar but only really tested by an awkward Lucas Vazquez backpass, added: "We've fought all season to get to April, where everything is played for.

"Winning today put pressure on Atletico and Barcelona.

"In April, everything is played for and everything is decided; hopefully we will keep winning."

Marco Asensio emphasised the importance of Real Madrid's 2-0 win over Eibar ahead of mammoth matches against Liverpool and Barcelona.

Madrid had 21 shots at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano but had been frustrated prior to the breakthrough strike from Asensio four minutes before half-time, with Eibar goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic in inspired form.

Dmitrovic finished with six saves, while three of Madrid's four offsides saw goals ruled out, yet Karim Benzema secured the points with a second-half header that extended his scoring streak to seven straight games.

Benzema has plundered nine goals in that time, while he has nine against Eibar in his LaLiga career - the most of any Madrid player.

Asensio is enjoying his own fine run, netting in three consecutive matches for Madrid for the first time, and now has his sights set on more important fixtures to come.

Liverpool visit in the Champions League on Tuesday before Madrid welcome rivals Barca next Saturday.

"I work for that [to score]," Asensio told Movistar. "In the end, it's about waiting for the moment and taking advantage of it.

"I'm happy for the goals, for the team and now comes the most important moment of the season.

"There are unfortunately a lot of injuries this season, but I think we all have to contribute and that's why we're a team."

Victory took Madrid up to second, at least until Barca play Real Valladolid on Monday.

Asensio said: "We knew we had to win to get good feelings and we took the three points, which is the most important thing.

"We have played a good match, creating chances, and in the end we have won well.

"Now we face a very important week with the match against Liverpool and then Barca to come. We have to live up to it as the Madrid we are."

Real Madrid closed to within three points of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid with a 2-0 win over Eibar at the start of a huge week at home and abroad.

Struggling Eibar were the first of three visitors to Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano in succession, with games against Liverpool and Barcelona set to go a long way to deciding Madrid's season.

Los Blancos were not tested on Saturday, though, frustrated only by offside calls and their own finishing either side of Marco Asensio's 41st-minute strike before Karim Benzema made sure 17 minutes from time.

Although Atleti and Barca – now third behind Zinedine Zidane's side – are both still to play this weekend, Madrid's title rivals will do well to find opponents as accommodating as Eibar.

An awful blind pass from Alejandro Pozo sent Benzema clear three minutes in, but the striker delayed before shooting and allowed Marko Dmitrovic to make a brilliant right-handed save.

Benzema was quickly denied again, this time by the offside flag after nodding in Marcelo's cross at the far post.

Asensio saw a wonderful free-kick bounce away off the crossbar and then joined Benzema in having a breakthrough goal struck off, his exquisite flick nutmegging Dmitrovic but drawing the attention of the VAR – again for offside.

Fortune soon found Asensio's favour, however, as he charged onto Casemiro's pass and slipped while shooting, only for his effort to clip his standing foot and beat Dmitrovic.

A second-half storm briefly threatened to derail Madrid, notably when Lucas Vazquez's backpass picked up pace on a slick pitch and required a desperate lunge from Thibaut Courtois to divert it to safety.

But after falling foul of the flag for a third time – Casemiro disappointed by team-mates standing in Dmitrovic's line of sight – Benzema wrapped up the result with a downwards header from substitute Vinicius Junior's fine centre.

What does it mean? First hurdle cleared with minimum of fuss

The weather was Madrid's most dangerous opponent against relegation-threatened Eibar. The same will not apply when Liverpool and Barca make the trip to Valdebebas.

Injured captain Sergio Ramos will be far more of a miss in those matches, but it was still important for Zidane – unbeaten against Eibar in 10 LaLiga meetings – to get three points on the board at the start of a monumental month.

Timely reminder of Marcelo's talents

This was just a ninth league outing of the season for Marcelo, who lined up on the wing with the security of fellow left-back Ferland Mendy behind him. It was a role that suited him well and no doubt gave Zidane pause for thought ahead of a big Champions League tie.

Given the license to attack without worrying about protecting a defence missing Ramos, Marcelo was a constant threat. Only the offside flag meant his final-third contributions – one blocked shot, one successful cross and no chances created – were relatively modest.

Benzema belatedly breaks through

Madrid's number nine was LaLiga's Player of the Month for March with five goals in three games, but he initially appeared to have left his fine form on the other side of the international break.

Benzema's third-minute chance really should have brought the opener, while mistimed headers followed either side of his disallowed effort. Finally, he found his range with the fourth of five attempts before being substituted with 10 minutes to go ahead of a season-defining stretch.

What's next?

Madrid have three days to prepare for the visit of Liverpool, while Eibar do not play again until next Saturday, at home to Levante.

Harry Kane has been linked with a move away from Tottenham this upcoming transfer window.

But the England forward has another three years on his contract and a deal will not come easy for suitors.

Manchester City are the latest club to be linked with Kane, as they assess their options if they cannot land Erling Haaland this close-season.

 

TOP STORY - TOTTENHAM WARD OFF KANE INTEREST

Tottenham have placed a £175million price tag on Harry Kane amid reports of interest in their star captain.

The Sun has reported Tottenham are unwilling to sell Kane, let alone to a Premier League rival such as City.

Kane is understood be content to stay at Tottenham and the price tag will likely deter any continental interest.

 

ROUND-UP

- Real Madrid are willing to sell one Norwegian Martin Odegaard, who is on loan at Arsenal, to generate the funds required to land his compatriot Haaland, according to The Times. The Gunners are understood to be keen to sign Odegaard permanently.

- Barcelona are lining up Inter's Lautaro Martinez as a possible signing if they fail to win the race for Haaland, reports Spanish publication Sport.

- Tuttosport claims that Juventus are readying a move to bring Moise Kean back to Turin from Everton after starring on loan at Paris Saint-Germain.

- Spanish outlet ABC is reporting that both Manchester United and Chelsea are keen on Real Madrid winger Lucas Vazquez.

Pep Guardiola has warned Manchester City will not make "any special signings" before next season, which appears to close the door on a big-money move for Erling Haaland.

The City boss refused to directly discuss the in-demand Borussia Dortmund striker, who has been linked with the Premier League leaders as well as the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United.

Catalan broadcaster Esport3 reported Madrid and Barcelona are the teams that Haaland is most interested in joining, although Dortmund would want a huge transfer fee to allow the 20-year-old Norwegian to move on before the 2021-22 campaign.

There have been unconfirmed claims that Haaland has a €75million release clause that comes into effect at the end of next season, but his current market value would be substantially higher.

City will lose Sergio Aguero at the end of this season, having elected to release their record scorer, but he has been so scarcely involved recently that the Argentinian's absence may not be sorely felt.

"I understand completely the situation of the club, and of all the other clubs bar a few. We are not going to do any special signings," Guardiola said in a news conference.

"I'm always honest. If you ask me now, it's not going to happen. All the clubs are struggling a lot and we are not an exception."

The COVID-19 crisis has seen clubs suffer major reductions in their anticipated income, with stadiums staying largely closed over the past year, meaning matchday income has been lost.

Barca and Madrid have also been majorly affected, yet both may find a way to propose a move for Haaland.

Former Barca boss Guardiola could lead City to a spectacular quadruple this season – they face Leicester City in the Premier League on Saturday, heading into the weekend with a 14-point lead at the summit. Leicester sit third, a point behind second-placed United.

The continuing success of his City team, who remain in the Champions League and could land a domestic cup double, means Spanish manager Guardiola does not feel inclined to ask the owners to fund a spectacular transfer coup.

City have also been linked with Barca great Lionel Messi, but Guardiola's tone suggests that may be another non-starter.

Although Messi might be available on a free transfer, his wages far outstrip those of any Premier League player. Such a move would involve jaw-dropping figures.

"You know my opinion – we never spend big money on one player," Guardiola said. "We have spent a lot of money on a lot of players, but none of them for incredible figures, and that is what we will continue to do in the coming years."

Asked directly about Haaland, and whether he accepted the striker would not be with City next season, Guardiola said: "You understand that I cannot talk about players from other clubs.

"It will not be polite for Borussia Dortmund or for Haaland. It is not my business. The players I have here deserve respect from their manager not to talk about other players when we have two important months ahead.

"If I was a player and the manager was talking about other players, I'd say 'what the f*** are you doing?'. We are here to do what we have to do. In five years here I have not talked about a player from another club."

Guardiola said releasing Aguero at the end of his contract "was the best decision for the club", albeit that meant there had to be a "difficult" conversation.

The City boss added: "He will help us until the end of the season."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer vowed Manchester United will conduct their transfer business in "the right way" as he refused to discuss a possible move for Erling Haaland.

Borussia Dortmund striker Haaland is a player coveted by a host of European giants, with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City thought to have looked at the 20-year-old Norway international.

His father, former Leeds United and Manchester City player Alf-Inge Haaland, and agent Mino Raiola arrived in Spain on Thursday and reportedly headed for talks with new Barcelona president Joan Laporta.

There were also claims that Haaland senior and Raiola held discussions with senior Real Madrid officials on the same day. Dortmund director Michael Zorc said the Bundesliga club had "made our intentions very clear" to Raiola, which was generally taken to mean that Haaland will not be allowed to leave on the cheap this year, if at all.

Solskjaer would surely love to bring compatriot Haaland to United, having previously coached him at Molde, but he is not prepared to allow such club business to carry on in the public eye.

"There's only so many places that a player can go to and for us, we want to focus on the ones who are here," Solskjaer said. "I've worked with Erling, but it's not right for me to talk about him. I can talk about him as an ex-coach of his, but he will make his own mind up.

"Who we're in for and who we will go for, I'm not going to comment on that."

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.

Only Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (67) and Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo (55) have scored more club goals among players from Europe's top five leagues during the same 15-month period.

Among players with at least 25 goals in that time, only one has beaten Haaland's big chance conversion rate of 62.5 per cent.

Opta defines a big chance as "where a player should reasonably be expected to score", and the player who has bettered Haaland's rate is already at United, with Bruno Fernandes finishing 69.44 per cent of such opportunities.

Solskjaer hinted United could announce some surprise signings, given the way he prefers the club to operate.

He said: "I think the way the world works at the moment, you'd like to do all your business on the quiet. But there's platforms everywhere, the media makes that more difficult. But hopefully we can see soon with players that no one has written about. We conduct our recruitment business, scouting and the players we're interested in, we do it the right way."

United face Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League on Sunday, and Solskjaer's choice of goalkeeper will come under scrutiny, with Dean Henderson and David de Gea battling to be the established number one.

Given Henderson is now an England squad member, sitting on the bench is not ideal for the 24-year-old's development, yet De Gea has been a near fixture in the United team for a decade.

"I understand the question and the narrative in the media," Solskjaer said. "Where there can be potential tension or controversy, that's where everyone wants to hear a comment from me.

"What I can say is what I've said so many times, that I've got great options playing the two of them. Top keepers but of course both want to play as much as possible. That will be decided on merit. We'll have to see who we think is going to give us a win on any given day."

De Gea has seen more action for United this season, playing 2,565 minutes across all competitions to Henderson's 1,695 minutes. But it is Henderson who has clearly the better save percentage, with a 79.03 per cent success rate compared to 65.09 per cent achieved by De Gea.

"They both know we value them highly," Solskjaer said. "It's a difficult decision to leave one of them out."

Whether one of the goalkeepers leaves in the next transfer window is one of a number of matters for Solskjaer to consider.

The former Cardiff City manager, whose side sit second in the Premier League heading into the weekend, says United have a strong sense of how their ins and outs will transpire in the close season.

"Of course, we have a plan ahead. It's a plan that we think is going to happen," he said.

"There are obviously a couple of players where their future is not decided yet. Some without contracts, some with contracts and we do have a certain picture of how we think the squad is going to look in August."

Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane is tired of discussing a possible move for Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland and says he is only thinking about the players in his squad.

Madrid are one of a number of elite clubs to have been linked with the Norway international following a goal-laden 15 months at Dortmund, where he has scored 49 goals in the same number of appearances.

Talk of a transfer to the Santiago Bernabeu at the end of the season intensified on Thursday as Haaland's agent Mino Raiola and father Alf-Inge were spotted in the Spanish capital, hours after footage emerged of the pair in Barcelona.

It was reported that Raiola and Alf-Inge were on their way to hold talks with Los Blancos president Florentino Perez over a deal for Haaland, whose reported €75million release clause is not said to come into effect until 2022.

However, Zidane was unwilling to discuss Madrid's apparent interest in the 20-year-old at Friday's news conference previewing a game against Eibar.

"I'm going to be very clear here. I'm very tired of saying the same thing over and over again," he said. "Everything that happens outside of my power, I'm not going to say it's good or bad. 

"I'm not going to give an opinion on this. What matters to me is my players and tomorrow's game. I'm getting tired of saying this, but if you and your colleagues keep asking this about other players, I'm going to keep saying the same thing. 

"I say all of this because, in the end, it's true; my job, my work is what I do with my players, how I work with my players in the day by day, and focusing on every game that comes in our path. Apart from all of that, I don't know.

"I only think about tomorrow's game. After that... again, you ask this and I say the same thing. We just focus on tomorrow."

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

The January 2020 signing from Salzburg netted twice in BVB's most recent outing, a 2-2 draw at Cologne, to take him to 14 away goals in the German top flight in 2020-21.

That is more than Werder Bremen (13), Hertha Berlin (13), Mainz (11), Arminia Bielefeld (10) and Schalke (eight) have scored as a team at home this season.

Asked for his opinion on Perez meeting with potential transfer targets, Zidane said: "Everyone can do what they want here. I don't have any feelings about this. 

"They can do whatever is at their convenience. I repeat again: my job is preparing my players, my staff around me here, everyone at this club around me, for this game, and that is all."

Zidane will be looking to maintain his unbeaten LaLiga record against Eibar on Saturday, winning eight and drawing one of their previous meetings.

Zinedine Zidane insists "no one has the blame" for Sergio Ramos returning from Spain duty with a calf injury that has "hurt" Real Madrid for a key stretch of the season.

Ramos returned from a knee issue ahead of the international break and scored for Madrid as they knocked Atalanta out of the Champions League.

However, he then played just 50 minutes across two appearances for Spain in World Cup qualifying and complained of a calf problem after a short cameo at home to Kosovo.

Madrid have not confirmed the anticipated length of Ramos' lay-off, but a return in time to face Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals and Barcelona in LaLiga appears unlikely.

Los Blancos host Liverpool on April 6, with a second leg eight days later sandwiching a critical home Clasico.

Given Ramos has appeared just 20 times for Madrid in all competitions this season, questions might be asked of his involvement for Spain.

But Zidane told a news conference on Friday: "No one has the blame here - not Spain, not Real Madrid. This is just football.

"Unfortunately, these things happen; it's happened before, not just to us but to a lot of other teams as well.

"It's true that, this part of football, we don't like it, of course, but these things happen. We have to accept this, but no one is to blame here.

"What we want for Sergio is that he recovers as quickly as possible. We know the player and captain he is. We know that he always wants to be available and playing.

"This has hurt us a little bit and we hope he recovers quickly."

Ramos' absence for the two legs against Liverpool would appear particularly costly as Madrid have lost seven of the 10 Champions League games he has missed since the end of the 2017-18, the season in which they were last crowned European champions and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo departed.

The centre-back has made 14 European appearances in that time and contributed to 10 wins, losing only once, while Los Blancos concede only 0.9 goals per game with him in the side - down from 1.9 without him.

But Zidane was not looking as far ahead as an intriguing last-eight tie, as Madrid first face Eibar on Saturday, playing before Atletico Madrid and Barca and able to cut the gap at the top to three points.

"You talk about Liverpool and Barcelona - we have a game tomorrow to play," Zidane said.

"We want Sergio back, we want him to be with us at all times, but right now we just focus on tomorrow's game.

"This is going to mark the path for the rest of the season. We just focus on tomorrow and that's it. Tomorrow at 4.15 [CET], we have a game and we have to all be ready, all of us."

Ramos is not Madrid's only injury absentee, either, with Eden Hazard prevented from going away with Belgium and Toni Kroos returning ealry from Germany duty.

Kroos has been a key man this season, playing 35 games and providing nine assists from 83 chances created, and he is "doing better", Zidane said.

The coach added Madrid are "not going to be silly" with the midfielder but he trained on Friday.

Hazard, on the other hand, has repeatedly suffered with fitness issues, restricted to only nine starts in 2020-21 and having a meagre four goal involvements.

"Once again, we don't have a plan with Eden," Zidane said. "It's a day-to-day thing, like everything.

"We're not going to force anything because the most important thing is that he's well, that he's recovered. For us, it's bit by bit.

"I'm not going to tell you we'll re-evaluate in a week, a few days, nothing. If it's in a few days, that's good for us; 10 days, okay. We're just going to take it day by day.

"He is with the team now and that's what we want. When he plays, we'll see."

Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it is a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, with the grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explained to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It is little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

The phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will be in the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 last year but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe at the time, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As such, we are left with the slightly awkward prospect of two Copa finals in the space of two weeks. The 2019-20 edition will be played on Saturday, before this season's showpiece – which also includes Athletic, but against Barcelona – takes place 14 days later.

Sadly there will be no fans in La Cartuja, Seville, for the first final, but the occasion will be no less momentous.

Despite the obvious historic nature of it, coverage of the 2019-20 final wasn't entirely positive ahead of the initial date. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – was met with much praise on the one hand in its first season last term, as it gave smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but it simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez said, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agreed as he looked back on last year's coverage. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. But there was lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledged, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for the postponement of the final, he felt.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said.

"That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They were saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalled David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replied when asked if final qualification was a sign of things to come for La Real, who are fifth in LaLiga but 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Sevilla. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 37-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

Sergio Aguero's next destination is a hot topic of conversation after Manchester City confirmed he will leave at the end of the season.

The Argentina forward has been linked with a host of clubs, including Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

The 32-year-old has spent the past decade in England with City.

 

TOP STORY - BLUES IN BOX SEAT FOR AGUERO

Chelsea have moved into pole position to land Aguero, who wants to remain in England according to the Daily Mail.

The Blues, who wanted to sign Aguero in 2011 when he left Atletico Madrid for City, will be in the market for a forward with rumours about Timo Werner's future after an underwhelming debut season at Stamford Bridge.

Portuguese publication Record claims Benfica are also interested in Aguero, while The Sun has added Arsenal and his former club Independiente to the list.

 

ROUND-UP

- Lyon's Netherlands international Memphis Depay has been heavily linked with a move to Barcelona, but Marca claims Liverpool could 'muscle in' for the soon-to-be free agent.

- Le Parisien reports that Paris Saint-Germain are in a hurry to get Kylian Mbappe to commit to a new contract amid speculation linking him with a move away, including to Real Madrid.

- L’Equipe claims that Arkadiusz Milik has a €12million buyout clause in his Marseille loan contract from Napoli and Juventus are preparing an offer to swoop for him.

Sheffield United midfielder Ismaila Coulibaly has attracted interest from AC Milan and Galatasaray but the Blades want to keep him, according to Yorkshire Live.

Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro is bullish that the club can contend for both the Spanish LaLiga and Champions League titles.

Reigning LaLiga champions Madrid return to action on Saturday against Eibar in the league, where they are third, six points behind leaders Atletico Madrid with 10 games to play.

Los Blancos will be back in continental action in midweek against Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final too.

"Everyone knows what we are capable of, that we can do it," Casemiro told TVE.

"We are going to fight until the end. We know that it is very difficult, but we will fight for both titles.

"For Real Madrid all games are important. We are already used to playing the big games.

"We like to play these type of games. First, we have to think about Eibar and then about the Champions League and the Clasico [against Barcelona on April 10]."

The Brazil international acknowledged Madrid, who won a trio of European titles from 2016 to 2018, have a difficult assignment against 2019 European champions Liverpool.

"It will be a very beautiful match and it will be decided on details," Casemiro said.

"Whoever makes fewer mistakes will win. Liverpool have great players and this match could be a Champions League final.

"These are very nice games that all the players want to play. We have to give everything in all the games, not only against Barcelona.

"They are games that when you win, give you a lot of encouragement for the final stretch of the season."

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