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Keep or dump: How will Real Madrid look next year?

Real Madrid

Why Barca bet big on Coutinho, Real stumble again, Wenger woe

Depending on whether or not you count Kylian Mbappe -- and you probably should, since while it hasn't actually happened yet, barring divine intervention, the money is committed -- Philippe Coutinho is now the second or third most expensive footballer of all time.

Coutinho has sold for €120 million ($144.4m), plus another €30m ($36m) in fairly easily attainable bonuses (related to appearances and Barcelona qualifying for the Champions League) and another €10m ($12m) if Barca become Champions of Europe twice with Coutinho on board: that is a whole load of money. Paradigm-shift type money, in fact.

Neymar's fee was explained away by the fact that Paris Saint-Germain wanted to make a statement, he packs a bigger punch commercially than anyone not named Lionel [Messi] or Cristiano [Ronaldo] and by the fact that this was the release clause in his contract. Mbappe turned 19 last month, and if you believe he's perhaps the most gifted teenager we've seen in a long time, his age offers you plenty of opportunities to amortise the expense. Plus, there's serious resale potential.

But Coutinho is 25. It's hard to argue that you're buying potential. What you are buying is a guy who watched the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and who, if you ignore his hat-trick against (ahem) Haiti in the Copa America, scored his first international goal in a competitive game less than 14 months ago. He made the PFA Premier League team of the year once in his five seasons with Liverpool (three years ago) and has started 30 league games or more just once in his career.

None of this is a knock on Coutinho, by the way. It's just that relative to the other most expensive players ever, he's neither a young potential superstar nor a G.O.A.T. in waiting. Instead, he's an exceptional footballer who, rightly or wrong, has been deemed a notch below the very highest echelon for most of his career.

Which brings us to the subject of the fee. You can't simply attribute it to the fact that Barca were sitting on the money from Neymar's sale and were desperate. That may have been true for Ousmane Dembele or the original bid for Coutinho, given the negativity surrounding Barcelona (and president Jose Maria Bartomeu) at the time. It's not true now. Barca don't need Coutinho to win La Liga and he can't play in the Champions League this season. (Incidentally, this is why Liverpool tried to persuade Barca to loan him back to them through the end of the current campaign.)

Barca won't worry about the size of Coutinho's transfer fee given the versatility and quality he'll bring.

In other words, there's no particular upward pressure on the fee other than Liverpool's ability to negotiate, the fact that it's January and Barcelona's opinion of Coutinho is obviously very, very high. That's the main takeaway here. Barcelona have either just vastly (and foolishly) overpaid for a player or transfer fees (which, until recently, had actually been growing more slowly than revenues) are catching up to where they should be.

The other interesting wrinkle to this is where and how he fits in at Barcelona. In fact, Coutinho's versatility may help explain (in part) his valuation. The stock answer is that he's the long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta, who turns 34 at the end of the season. The fact that Coutinho is cup-tied means he can take plenty of Iniesta's La Liga minutes, allowing him to be fresh for the Champions League. That may well be true but Coutinho has shown he is equally adept operating wide in a front three (in fact, he often played there for Liverpool and for Brazil).

Other than replacing Sergio Busquets or Luis Suarez, he can fill any role in Ernesto Valverde's front six and do it with quality. In fact, few players of his caliber are as versatile and the fact that Valverde will have six months to figure out what to do with him before next season is a definite bonus.

As for Liverpool, all you can really do is applaud at this stage. I thought the risk of losing out on Champions League football (likely worth anywhere from $50-150m next season) outweighed whatever premium Barcelona were willing to pay. But the fact that he reportedly kicked in nearly $14m out of his own pocket to make the deal happen is a game-changer. It mitigates the risk and, crucially, illustrates the lengths to which he was willing to go to in order to move on. In those circumstances, Liverpool really had little choice and they did very well to get such an enormous fee.

Barcelona win again

Speaking of Barcelona, it was all downhill for them in the 3-0 win over Levante as first-half goals from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez sent them on their way. What stood out again was the play of full-backs Sergi Roberto and, especially, Jordi Alba.

The latter had a poor campaign by his standards last season but is bouncing back nicely this year under Valverde. With Yerry Mina reportedly on his way to add some size to the defense and Samuel Umtiti about to sign a new deal (and get rid of that cheapo €60m release clause), the club are getting their house in order at the back.

Liverpool, Everton allegations

Madley's handling of the incident between Firmino and Holgate is worthy of scrutiny.

Liverpool's win over Everton on Friday night was marred by the incident between Mason Holgate and Roberto Firmino. The Brazil forward is now the subject of allegations and the Football Association has opened an investigation. There's not much point speculating on what was said, though one encouraging aspect is that there were plenty of people around so hopefully the inquiry will hinge on witness statements more than lip-reading, which can be unreliable and subject to camera angles.

What does strike you as odd, though, is referee Bobby Madley's officiating. What precipitated the whole incident was Holgate shoving Firmino while he was off the pitch and with such force that he ended up over the advertising hoardings. That's a yellow, if not a red. Holgate got neither.

Maybe Madley was so preoccupied with the altercation afterwards that he forgot what led to it. But if that's the case, shouldn't the fourth official have reminded him?

Madrid's title chase ends at Celta

Wow. So the gap between Real Madrid and Barcelona now stands at 16 points. Forget any discussion about whether Zinedine Zidane's crew are still in the title race; if this keeps up, we may soon be wondering whether they'll be in the Champions League next year. Most worrying here is that Sunday's 2-2 draw at Celta could easily have been a defeat instead: Keylor Navas saved a penalty and the home side were denied one late on.

Manager Juan Carlos Unzue sent his team out with no fear or reverence for the opposition and Madrid struggled mightily. Gareth Bale (making his first Liga start since September) scored two goals but the idea that he and Cristiano Ronaldo (who had a very poor game) can function as a strike partnership seems far-fetched. There's simply not enough work off the ball, which in turn puts a strain on the midfield against sides that like to keep the ball and attack, like Celta.

I'm not sure that's an experiment we need to see again.

FA Cup defeat piles pressure on Wenger

Arsene Wenger should prioritise the League Cup in the pursuit of silverware.
Wenger used a lot of younger players in Sunday's defeat but the veterans were just as to blame.

Arsenal fell 4-2 at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round on Sunday, marking the first time ever that an Arsene Wenger side falls at the first hurdle.

It was simply a hideous performance that will further turn the screws on the embattled manager. You can't get on your high horse over the fact that he sent out a team packed with kids and reserves -- many Premier League teams do that, though in Arsenal's case you wonder if he didn't go over the top with the teenagers -- but it's fair to question their actual performance on the pitch.

The absolute nadir was Eric Lichaj's opening goal, best illustrated by this photo. There simply is no excuse, even at the U-12 level, for something like this, with the two men in the wall playing Lichaj onside and seemingly nobody noticing.

You had a World Cup-winning central defender there (Per Mertesacker), a veteran keeper with 81 caps for Colombia (David Ospina), experienced players like Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott... and nobody thought to speak up? This isn't about poor set piece defending either; it's simply about switching off and showing zero leadership.

You can blame Wenger for a lot of things. I'm not sure you take him to task for that as well...

Abuse against Matuidi mars Juve win

Just as it looked as if Paulo Dybala was regaining his stride, making his third consecutive start for Juventus, he broke down again. A hamstring injury at Cagliari means he'll be out for up to six weeks. It's a blow but in some ways, it's also an opportunity for Max Allegri, who can now test his system with two genuine wingers and without having to answer endless Dybala-related questions.

On the pitch, Juventus won 1-0 thanks to a late Federico Bernardeschi goal in what ended up being an acrimonious affair, with Cagliari complaining about certain incidents not being video-reviewed by the match official. (They were reviewed in the booth but not deemed "clear errors.") However, the game was marred by the racist abuse directed by a minority of Cagliari supporters towards Blaise Matuidi.

Cagliari took to Twitter, apologising "if he was insulted" and reiterating that racism "doesn't belong to the Sardinian people." That's great, sure, but it happened last season to Sulley Muntari when he visited Cagliari.

Nobody is blaming "the Sardinian people." They're blaming the people who think that such abuse is acceptable; that's where Cagliari ought to be directing their efforts. Identify them, name them, shame them and make sure they never step into their stadium ever again. The apology is great and all (though maybe lose the "if" next time) but telling us what concrete steps you're taking would be even better.

Costa does a Costa for Atletico

Diego Costa made his first Liga start for Atletico Madrid in their 2-0 win over Getafe and had a stereotypical Diego Costa sort of game. First he picked up a booking for a wayward elbow. Then he scored a great goal and then, he proceeded to celebrate by jumping into the crowd at the Wanda Metropolitano, either forgetting (or just not caring) that he had already been booked.

Joking aside, Atleti got a real shot in the arm with his signing. Not enough to reopen the Liga race -- nine points is a lot -- but they'll be one of the sides nobody wants to play in the Europa League. And finishing second in the league would send a huge message: Atleti, and Diego Simeone, are alive and well.

Conte, Mourinho show football's ugly side

Norwich held Chelsea to a 0-0 draw on Saturday and after the match, Antonio Conte kept the Jose Mourinho row alive by calling him a "little man." I addressed this stuff in a column over the weekend and there's not much to add other than say that those commenters who think that things were always like this are badly mistaken. (On Monday, the FA said that they would not intervene.)

It was pointed out to me that Burnley boss Sean Dyche had addressed the current state of play a few weeks ago when he said: "Football is in a strange position now. The only real bit is on the pitch or not the training ground. There's so much around the game now... it's like a strange pantomime."

It's hard to disagree and no, it hasn't always been this nasty. Not in England, anyway.

Napoli remain top in Italy

Napoli bounced back from elimination in the Coppa Italia last week to beat Verona, 2-0, with goals from Kalidou Koulibaly and Jose Maria Callejon. Verona aren't particularly good but equally, it wasn't a game to take for granted. Maurizio Sarri's team have occasionally found things tricky at home against opponents who defend well and it doesn't take long in Naples for disappointment to turn to despair and impact matters on the pitch.

This was a professional display and a confident one as well. They do need to add depth and Sarri might be wise to use more of his squad as we hit the stretch run. What matters right now is their nose is ahead of Juve's in the league table.

And finally...

Bas Dost scored a hat-trick in Sporting's 5-0 victory over Maritimo, which leaves them second in the Portuguese league, two points behind Porto. He now has 16 goals in 17 league matches, putting him on pace to score 32 league goals this season. Overall, he has in 20 in 28 games in all competitions.

This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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