Manchester City’s quadruple hopes are over – the danger now is that their season could fall apart.
This is a defining week for them. Tottenham are back at Etihad Stadium on Saturday (12:30 BST kick-off), before Pep Guardiola’s side go to Old Trafford for the Manchester derby on Wednesday (20:00).
The Champions League is gone but the Premier League title is on the line now, and nothing less than two wins will do. City cannot rely on Liverpool dropping points in their remaining matches.
Guardiola’s problem is that he has to find a way of picking his players up off the floor after the incredible drama of their European exit to Spurs.
He looked shattered and devastated himself at the final whistle, and understandably so. Right from the start, the action was absolutely relentless – and that continued for the entire 96 minutes.
Race for the Premier League title
Man City fixtures
Manchester United (A)
I was there for BBC Radio 5 Live and it was that good to watch that there was no time to breathe. It is difficult to think of a better game I have seen, and as a spectacle it was just staggering.
City put so much energy into trying to get through – and to lose when you think you have won, in the way they did when their injury-time goal was wiped out by VAR, is especially cruel. It will be hard for everyone at the club to come to terms with.Manchester City have to accept ‘cruel’ Tottenham defeat – Guardiola
They gave everything, but they have no time to feel sorry for themselves because there is still so much to play for.
City have still got six games left this season, and if they win them all, finishing against Watford at Wembley, they will win the Premier League and FA Cup and complete a domestic treble.
That would be an unbelievable achievement and I am sure Guardiola’s message to his players will be along those lines. One trophy has gone but there are still two more to go – let’s go for the hat-trick.
Spurs will be running on pure adrenaline
Tottenham players are ‘heroes’ – Pochettino
I have a gut feeling City will beat Spurs on Saturday, but everything about the game is going to feel very different.
There was a sensational atmosphere at the Etihad on Wednesday night. Guardiola asked for the fans to show him they cared about the Champions League, and they certainly did that.
It will just not be possible for their supporters to create the same sort of intensity inside the stadium on a Saturday lunchtime, but the City fans still have a big part to play.
They did their bit to help City go after Spurs in midweek, and they can lift the players again. They have to try because, if things feel flat at all, that will only help the visitors.
The Tottenham team will also have some tired bodies in it, but the difference is they are returning to the scene of a famous victory.
They lost on the night but still got the result they wanted and put in a brilliant performance to get it. As a player you just don’t feel tired after results like that, and they will be full of confidence and running on pure adrenaline.
Of course Spurs had a little bit of luck along the way, but they withstood all the City pressure on Wednesday and thoroughly deserved their victory. Over the two legs, they were the better side.
City will have regrets from first leg too
Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Manchester City: Pep Guardiola pleased with City performance
City can take some positives from the way they played on Wednesday into the weekend, but they cannot afford any more stupid mistakes or missed opportunities if they are going to get the result they want this time.
When City look back on how the Champions League tie was lost, then defensively they clearly could have done a lot better at the Etihad.
Aymeric Laporte has hardly put a foot wrong all season but his mistakes cost City two goals, and Ederson should have done better with the first of them too.
When you have conceded three goals at home you probably don’t deserve to go through – but they will have regrets from the first leg too.
I was surprised Pep did not pick a more attack-minded side but really the reason that night went wrong for them boils down to Sergio Aguero’s missed penalty after 11 minutes.
Things would have been very different if he had put that away. City would have been ahead in the tie, and had an away goal too.
Instead they had to wait until Aguero scored in the 59th minute of the second leg to lead on aggregate, and there were more twists and turns to come.
Spurs must cope without Son and Kane
The Squad: Is Son Heung-min Tottenham’s player of the season?
Guardiola’s Champions League hopes are over for another year and it is Tottenham who are through, with Ajax standing between them and a place in the final against either Barcelona or Liverpool in Madrid on 1 June.
Spurs will see their semi-final as winnable – but so will Ajax’s exciting young team, who have already beaten Real Madrid and Juventus and are building a big reputation. I don’t think anyone sees Ajax as an easy option any more.
It is a big blow to Spurs that they will be without the suspended Son Heung-min for the first leg at home, although their new stadium will again give them a huge boost.
Son was absolutely magnificent against City, and he always seems to step up when Harry Kane is absent. Spurs must find a way of coping without both of them next time, but they have already beaten the odds to get this far.’Difficult’ for Harry Kane to play again this season – Mauricio Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino’s side came so close to going out in the group stage. They were hanging on for dear life in their last game against Barcelona – now they could end up facing a rematch in the final.
There is no point thinking about that just yet, though. Barca are still my favourites to go all the way and win it, but Liverpool’s attack will cause them problems and that tie is also very difficult to call.
Raheem Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi condemned the “unacceptable” racist abuse of England players during their 5-1 win in Montenegro.
Racist chanting was directed at a number of England players, including Danny Rose, during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Podgorica.
Manager Gareth Southgate said the incidents will be reported to European football’s governing body Uefa.
“It’s unacceptable,” he added. “I heard abuse of Rose when he got booked.”
He told BBC Radio 5 Live: “There’s no doubt in my mind it happened. I know what I heard. We have to make sure our players feel supported, they know the dressing room is there and we as a group of staff are there for them.
“We have to report it through the correct channels. It is clear that so many people have heard it and we have to continue to make strides in our country and trust the authorities to take the right action.”
After only six minutes, BBC Radio 5 Live commentator Ian Dennis said he heard racist chants when Tottenham left-back Rose was in possession. BBC football correspondent Mr Ben Rory also said he heard the chanting throughout the game and spoke to pitch-side photographers who described the abuse the England players received as “disgusting”.
Sterling scored England’s fifth goal in the 81st minute and celebrated by putting his hands to his ears, a gesture he later said was a response to the racist abuse.
In injury time Rose was booked following a strong challenge on Aleksandar Boljevic, with more racist chants aimed at the 28-year-old.
It is not the first time Rose has faced this situation on international duty.
He was racially abused in Serbia in an under-21 game in 2012. Serbia’s FA was fined £65,000, with their under-21s having to play a game behind closed doors.
Sterling calls for a ‘real punishment’
Sterling called on football’s authorities to take “a proper stance” and crack down on the racist abuse.
“A couple of idiots ruined a great night and it is a real sad thing to hear,” Sterling told BBC Radio 5 Live. “It’s a real sad situation we are talking about after a great win.
“I don’t think it was just one or two people that heard it, it was the whole bench. There should be a real punishment for this, not just the two or three people who were doing it – it needs to be a collective thing.
“This place holds 15,000. The punishment should be, whatever nation it is, if your fans are chanting racist abuse then it should be the whole stadium so no-one can come and watch.
“When the ban is lifted, the fans will think twice. They all love football, they all want to come and watch their nation so it will make them think twice before doing something silly like that.”
Describing his reaction to his goal, Sterling added: “It was one of those where it was to let them know, you are going to need to tell me more than that we are black and what we resemble to affect us.
“That was the message and give them something to talk about.
“We can only bring awareness and light to the situation. It’s time for the people in charge to put a real stamp on it.
“In England we have a diverse country and lots of different faces. I can only do so much; the FA can only do so much. The people in charge need to make a proper stance.”
Kick it Out, an anti-discrimination charity, said: “As we’ve argued countless times, it’s time for Uefa to take strong, decisive action – fines won’t do.
“Extended stadium bans or tournament expulsion are what’s needed.”
Should England players have gone off the pitch?
England had gone behind in Montenegro to a Marko Vesovic effort before goals from Michael Keane, Ross Barkley, who scored twice, Harry Kane and Sterling completed a comfortable win.
However, the talk after the game was dominated by the racist chanting aimed at England’s players and Southgate was asked about whether he should have taken England’s players off the pitch.
“I’m not 100% certain that that would be what the players would want,” he said.
“There would be a mix of views, in terms of when we’ve discussed the topic in the past, how the players would like it to be dealt with. And they just want to play football.
“Of course, we have the chance to have an impact, but I don’t have the answer, frankly.”
He added: “Maybe that’s something I’d have to consider in the future. I have to say, it wasn’t something that came to mind at the time.
“I would want to have a long discussion with my players before to make sure that was a course of action they felt was a) something they wanted to do, and b) thought was something that was going to make a difference.”
A Uefa delegate was at the game and Southgate believes the representative from European football’s governing body heard the racist abuse.
“I’m reflecting on should I have done more?” said Southgate. “In the end, I think I tried to protect my players as much as I possibly can.
“I’m not the authority on the subject. I’m a middle-aged white guy speaking about racism.
“I’m just finding it a really difficult subject to broach because I want my players to enjoy playing football and not be scarred by the experiences.
“If people feel I should have done more, then I can only apologise for that.”
I heard fans making monkey noises – Hudson-Odoi
Chelsea winger Hudson-Odoi, 18, who was making his first international start, told BeIn Sports: “I don’t think discrimination should be anywhere – we are equal.
“When you are hearing stuff like that from the fans, it is not right and it is unacceptable. Hopefully Uefa deal with it properly. When me and Rosey went over there, they were saying, ‘ooh aa aa’ monkey stuff and we just have to keep our heads and keep a strong mentality.
“Hopefully Rosey is OK too. We will discuss it and have a chat. He has a strong mentality and is a strong guy so hopefully everything will be good.
“It is not right at all – I was enjoying the game too. We just have to take the win and go back home.”
England’s Declan Rice, who was also making his first Three Lions start, was sitting next to Rose in the dressing room after the game and said the incidents affected everyone in the camp.
“It is clearly unacceptable and it is up to the FA and Uefa to deal with it,” said Rice. “It is not right, we came here to play a football match, we have been respectful and they need to show respect to us.
“Danny was disappointed. We talk all the time about kicking it out of the game but when is it actually going to stop? It is happening all the time and there needs to be more punished for it.
“We need to be doing more. I don’t know what else we can do, there are so many campaigns saying ‘kick it out’ but then you come to places like this and it happens again, you are back to the start.”
England’s outstanding win in Montenegro should be a cause for celebration – instead it was overshadowed by the shameful racist abuse aimed at Southgate’s players.
Those close to the pitch in Podgorica delivered grim reports of what was being suffered by players in what is unquestionably an unforgiving, hostile and unpleasant arena.
Sterling’s cupped ear response towards the Montenegro fans after scoring was revealing. It was clearly a pointed response to what he had been hearing on the terraces in this small stadium.
It brought a furious response, with more chants and an object being thrown on to the pitch which was retrieved by Hudson-Odoi.
The most audible chanting came late on when Rose was booked for a late challenge and monkey noises from the Montenegro supporters could be heard from the press box.
It was disgraceful, unacceptable and provided a sour backdrop and unsavoury conclusion to what should have been, when viewed in the football context, a highly satisfactory night for Southgate and England after recording back-to-back five-goal victories for the first time in more than 30 years.
Now is the time for Uefa to come up with the punishment that fits the crime, not simply heavy fines but threats of exclusion from tournaments.
This should have been solely about another outstanding England win – instead a light must also be shone on the dreadful undercurrent of racist abuse that still comes out and puts a blight on football and society.
‘Uefa must take strong and swift action’ – what other people said
Sports Minister Mims Davies: “Rightly very proud of the England players tonight – a fantastic effort and cracking result – in face of absolutely unacceptable racist abuse. Uefa must quickly investigate then take strong and swift action.”
Former England striker Ian Wright, speaking to ITV: “It will probably go to Uefa and they’ll be fined a pittance and we’ll get the same thing again here the next time or somewhere else in Europe. It’s not going to stop them.”
Former England midfielder Joe Cole, also on ITV: “We need to shine a light on it. As a nation we need to take a lead on it. It’s out of order and England players shouldn’t have to deal with it.”
Former England defender Danny Mills on BBC Radio 5 Live: “Raheem Sterling has taken a lot of stick from the crowd so why can’t he celebrate like that? One week we want players to show passion and emotion and the next we are criticising their reaction when they are getting abused all game.”
Ireland’s former two-weight UFC champion Conor McGregor says he has “retired from the sport formally known as ‘Mixed Martial Art'”.
The 30-year-old announced his decision on social media on Tuesday.
“I wish all my old colleagues well going forward,” he added.
McGregor’s last fight ended in defeat, when he was beaten by Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018 – the Russian winning the lightweight contest by a fourth-round submission.
It was his first fight in the octagon in two years and the defeat was marred by a post-fight brawl which led to both fighters being fined and suspended.
Since making his mixed martial arts debut in 2007, former trainee plumber McGregor established himself as one of the sport’s leading fighters.
How McGregor transcended UFC
McGregor won the interim featherweight title with a knockout of Jose Aldo inside 13 seconds. While a loss on his welterweight debut to Nate Diaz ended a 15-fight winning streak, the Irishman won the rematch five months later.
A victory over Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight championship saw McGregor become the sport’s first dual-weight champion.
And at the peak of his powers he transcended the sport, going on to face five-weight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather in ‘The Money Fight’.
That lucrative affair earned McGregor an estimated $30m (£23m), and attracted more than a million pay per view buyers in the UK and four million in the United States, with the American winning in the 10th round by technical knockout.
However, McGregor’s time in mixed martial arts has also been marred by controversy.
In 2018, he was ordered to have anger management training and perform five days of community service by a court in return for criminal charges being dropped after he had attacked a bus containing rival UFC fighters.
Video footage appeared to show McGregor throwing a railing at a bus carrying Khabib and a number of other UFC fighters.
Earlier this month McGregor was arrested in Miami for allegedly smashing a fan’s phone as they tried to take pictures of him.
McGregor, who finishes with a record of 21 wins and four defeats, said: “I now join my former partners on this venture, already in retirement. Proper Pina Coladas on me fellas!”
Has he really retired?
This is not the first time that McGregor has announced his retirement from the sport.
In April 2016, McGregor tweeted: “I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese,” and was then not included on the UFC 200 card.
But he quickly issued a retraction outlining that he had instead fallen out with the sport’s bosses over promotional work.
In September 2018, McGregor launched an Irish whiskey brand.
Following McGregor’s announcement UFC President Dana White told MMA writers in the US: “He has the money to retire. It totally makes sense. If I was him, I would retire too.
“He’s retiring from fighting, not from working. The whiskey will keep him busy and I’m sure he has other things he’s working on.”
“He has been so fun to watch. He has accomplished incredible things in this sport. I am so happy for him and look forward to seeing him be as successful outside the octagon as he was in it.”
However, McGregor’s latest statement arrives after an interview aired on an American television show, in which he claimed he was in negotiations with the UFC about a return to fighting in July.
In that appearance he said rematches against Diaz and Aldo would appeal to him and he has also said he would send Mayweather’s “head into the bleachers,” if the pair were to meet again.
“I’ll be here ready for him. I’ll be here ready and confident,” he said.
“Next camp, and I do believe it should happen, I mean, why not? Why not? If I have sparring partners in my camp that march forward, trust me when I tell you, I’ll send his head into the bleachers.”
Plans to classify female athletes by their testosterone levels “contravene international human rights” says the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Olympic 800m champion Semenya, 28, is challenging the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) over its bid to restrict levels of testosterone in female runners.
The UN called the plans “unnecessary, humiliating and harmful”.
The IAAF said the motion given to the UN contained “inaccurate statements”.
Under the IAAF rules, female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels would have to race against men or change events unless they took medication to reduce those levels.
The regulations will apply to women in track events from 400m up to one mile and require that athletes have to keep their testosterone levels below a prescribed amount “for at least six months prior to competing”.
The issue was discussed at the UN Human Rights Council’s 40th session in March, at which delegates asked for a detailed report to be put together for a future meeting.
In the meantime, the body put on record its “concerns” with the IAAF proposals.
The council said it wanted governing bodies “to refrain from developing and enforcing policies and practices that force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures in order to participate in women’s events in competitive sports”.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, experts recently claimed the IAAF’s regulations risked “setting an unscientific precedent for other cases of genetic advantage”.
Speaking in June, two-time Olympic champion and three-time world champion Semenya called the rule “unfair”, adding: “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born.”
The IAAF intended to bring in new rules on 1 November 2018 but the subsequent legal challenge prompted that to be delayed until the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) had ruled on the matter.
That ruling was due on 26 March but Cas has postponed it until next month.
A win for Semenya would see her free to continue competing the way she has always done, but a loss means the South African athlete could end up not competing altogether, competing against men or having to take medicine to lower her hormone levels.
Semenya has previously been asked to undertake gender testing by athletics chiefs, but no results have officially been made public.
Testosterone is a hormone that increases muscle mass, strength and haemoglobin, which affects endurance.
How has the IAAF responded to the UN’s motion?
In a statement provided to BBC Sport, the IAAF said “It is clear that the author is not across the details of the IAAF regulations nor the facts presented recently at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“There are many generic and inaccurate statements contained in the motion presented to the UN Human Rights Council so it is difficult to work out where to start.
“The common ground is that we both believe it is important to preserve fair competition in female sport so women are free to compete in national and international sport.
“To do this it is necessary to ensure the female category in sport is a protected category, which requires rules and regulations to protect it, otherwise we risk losing the next generation of female athletes, since they will see no path to success in female sport.”
There were just 13 foreign players in the Premier League when it began in 1992 – now there are over 300.
But of the 2,016 non-British and Irish players to grace the top flight since then, which import can be classed as the best?
The Premier League’s all-time top goalscorer Alan Shearer, former Chelsea and Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit, title winner Chris Sutton and New York Times football writer Rory Smith discussed the options for a Premier League Show Special (BBC Two and BBC iPlayer at 19:00 GMT on Thursday).
A shortlist was provided to the panel featuring overseas players who had made it into a PFA Team of the Year. The panel then selected what it considers the standout candidates in each area of the pitch – three goalkeepers, three defenders, three midfielders and four forwards.
From this list you can vote for your favourite at the bottom of the page.
The results will be revealed on this page and on Football Focus at 12:15 GMT on BBC One on Saturday.
David de Gea (Man Utd)
Sutton: He was under a lot of scrutiny in his first season, as is natural for goalkeepers who sign for Manchester United. He showed he had the temperament to cope and grew in stature. Commanding, unflustered and a great shot stopper, he makes so many saves with his feet. An outstanding all-round decision maker and goalkeeper.
Smith: The fact that he’s won less than Peter Schmeichel during his Manchester United career – and hasn’t been quite as domineering a figure in football’s consciousness as his predecessor – means he has to rank below him, and behind Petr Cech, but if he remains in England for the peak years of his career, as it now appears he will, that may have to be reassessed.
Petr Cech (Chelsea, Arsenal)
Smith: Cech was the underrated player of that Chelsea team from the mid-2000s that set a lot of records. He went on to Arsenal and had a decent career so his longevity is extraordinary. He has won four titles, has more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper and more clean sheets in a single season.
Sutton: Cech has the numbers and was very calm and dependable. He was a different type of goalkeeper to the others.
Peter Schmeichel (Man Utd, Aston Villa, Man City)
Sutton: Schmeichel was head and shoulders above the rest. He was rather unorthodox, more of a handball goalkeeper when he first came over. It was very unusual but he had a very imposing presence. At the start of the era, what that Manchester United team achieved was down to his influence.
Gullit: Schmeichel was a complete package, his presence was there all the time and he was very good with his feet too – that is very important now. You probably felt safe with Schmeichel behind you and the players would have thought, “As long as he is there, we have a chance to win”. He would make saves that were vital.
Shearer: I played against him numerous times. He was hard, great at crosses and a winner. He bullied and organised his defenders and, having talked to Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister who played in front of him, they said he was pretty horrible in a good way. They had huge respect for him and you knew you were going into battle when you came up against Peter. He certainly was not afraid. He brought the starfish technique where he made himself huge and you had to be accurate to get the ball past him. The memory I take from playing against him is how big he made himself against you.
Edwin van der Sar
Shearer: He has more appearances, more clean sheets and a better clean sheet percentage record than Schmeichel, plus four titles, yet he has hardly got a mention.
Nemanja Vidic (Man Utd)
Sutton: Vidic ended my career – I played my last ever game against him.
He was part of one of the greatest centre-back partnerships the Premier League has ever seen with Rio Ferdinand. Beauty was Rio and the beast was Vidic. An old school rough and ready defender, he was tough and uncompromising but he was more than that. A superb reader of the game and leader. When the going got tough he was the one you would want standing next to you in the heat of the battle.
Gullit: If you look at how many titles Vidic won – five – that stands out. He was very reliable at the back and at the front.
Smith: Vidic’s career was incredible and the sheer number of titles he won gives him a compelling case. Defenders are always overlooked, but there’s a case to be made that, pound for pound, Vidic is up there with the best signings of the Premier League era. Imperious and impervious at his best, as rounded a defender as you could find, enormously successful and impressively long-lasting. Probably counts as £12.5m well spent, all told.
Shearer: Vidic was a warrior and a very good one.
Jaap Stam (Man Utd)
Smith: Stam was arguably the first world-class player to arrive in the Premier League at his peak. He was the best defender in the world when he came to England and was extraordinary for Manchester United in a very brief period. He didn’t like the Neville brothers, upset Sir Alex Ferguson and left. Fergie puts selling Stam to Lazio down as one of his biggest regrets. That is an incredible admission. You wonder what would have happened if he did not make that mistake and if Stam had stayed.
Sutton: Who would I least like to play against? Jaap Stam. He was an all-rounder who had everything. He was strong, quick, he could head the ball and he could play football too.
Shearer: He was very tough and you knew exactly what you were going up against. He could do everything. If you wanted a scrap and a fight, he would not mind that but if you wanted to play football, he was also good at that.
Vincent Kompany (Man City)
Shearer: He played in midfield when he first arrived and has been a fantastic player for Manchester City. He won three titles and has made 260 appearances but it would have been so many more but for his injury struggles.
Sutton: What a fantastic leader. I played against him when he was at Anderlecht at the age of 17 and he marked me out of the game. He was mature at that age and read the game superbly well.
Smith: When you take away the raw achievements on the field, Kompany arrived before the money kicked in and he has been there throughout City becoming a force in the Premier League. To have experienced all of that, to have survived all those managers and styles, that is testament to his abilities.
Shearer: When you put Sami up alongside the likes of Vidic and Vincent Kompany, not winning the title does not help him. He was very honest and would not kick you as much as the others did. He was a nice centre-half, if you could get such a thing. Stam and Vidic were horrible to play against.
Smith: He was just as important to Chelsea in that first Jose Mourinho season as John Terry. He was the perfect partner.
Patrick Vieira (Arsenal, Man City)
Gullit: His presence in midfield… Because of him Arsenal had the foundation which was difficult to get through. There was Martin Keown and Tony Adams behind you and that is why the rest of the players played. He had vision and was tough tackling.
Sutton: Vieira had huge influence over Arsenal, he could do more things than others. Vieira was box to box. He was the only player able to break my nose as well.
Shearer: Vieira epitomised what that Arsenal team were all about. The hunger and desire, the ability to mix it with the best. He was someone who was horrible to play against. He had huge respect from everyone in the game. If you were not prepared to run and fight and scrap to win football matches and the title, you might as well have given up.
David Silva (Man City)
Smith: Silva has won three Premier League titles but he has proven something wrong. When he first arrived, people looked at him and thought, he is not very tall, not very strong and he will be crowded out by Premier League midfields. For a long time, most players were built in the Vieira model – tall, rangy, powerful and tough. Silva is none of those things and has thrived for nearly a decade. He has shown incredible endurance and perseverance, his class has never dropped throughout and is catching up to Cesc Fabregas as the player with most assists.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Man Utd)
Smith: It is hard not to be seduced by what Ronaldo became. His is the best player the Premier League produced and went on to become one of the two best players of his generation. The Ronaldo we saw winning four Champions League titles in five season at Real Madrid is not the same Ronaldo we saw in the Premier League.
Shearer: His name has to be considered, there is no doubt about it – what an amazing player. He was superb at Manchester United and then went on to achieve more at Real Madrid.
Sutton: When he first started, he wanted the ball for himself and was very talented. He developed his game but there are stronger candidates in the Premier League era.
Shearer: There is no way Leicester or Chelsea would have won the titles without Kante in the team. When you are talking about importance to a team, you have to give him a mention. I don’t think I have ever seen a midfielder with the energy of Kante to get around the pitch.
Shearer: Ginola was sometimes a frustrating talent because he did not always show his ability but when you gave him the ball with his back to the defender, I have never seen a player able to go either way with his natural ability.
Smith: Toure had a bit of Vieira and a bit of Silva in him. He was one of the pillars that the past 10 years of Manchester City has been built on. He was a superstar signing from Barcelona and scored the winning goal in an FA Cup final. He was incredibly important and his legacy is overlooked.
Smith: Makelele is the only player to leave the Premier League with a role named after him. What a legacy that is.
Thierry Henry (Arsenal)
Shearer: For longevity in the Premier League and the number of appearances he made and the goals he scored, Henry is up there.
Smith: Henry has all the numbers. There was elegance to everything he did. I wonder how many fans around the world watch the Premier League because of Thierry Henry. He was the complete package, an incredible footballer and a marketing manager’s dream. He took your breath away with what he did.
Sutton: Henry is the greatest ever player in the Premier League. What he brought in terms of people paying to go watch him play, he is the one. He got the crowd off their seats and what could he not do? He was a phenomenal player.
Sergio Aguero (Man City)
Shearer: I am a huge fan of Aguero. Even when Pep Guardiola came into Manchester City, all we kept hearing was that he had to change his game, he did not work hard enough and was not one of Pep’s players. He has managed to do that and kept his goals ratio very high.
Smith: He is probably the best foreign Premier League player of the decade. Since he arrived he has been incredibly consistent and can do everything. He is the complete forward.
Eric Cantona (Leeds, Man Utd)
Smith: Can you believe Sheffield Wednesday turned Cantona down? He had the upturned collar, the arrogance and he fitted the stereotype that English people had of the French. Most of the players on this list would not have come to England if it were not for Cantona. The moment he arrived at Leeds in 1992, then on to Manchester United, he transformed English football in a way that no other player has done. He has not won the most trophies or scored the most goals but he has had more impact than anyone else.
Sutton: He transformed Manchester United at the start of the Premier League era when the club started to dictate. He gave them the confidence and an edge.
Shearer: £1.2m from Leeds? What a signing. When you speak to other Manchester United players about him, there were rules for them and Cantona had his own set of rules. Basically, because of his ability and his impact, he could do whatever he wanted to do. Week in, week out, he performed so well for them.
Gullit: What an unbelievable impact he made in the Premier League for Manchester United. In Europe, and even France, Cantona is not such a big name as it is in England. So I heard about him when I came here and he was an extraordinary player. I played against him and his influence was different from anyone else.
Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
Gullit: This player stands out. He won the Champions League for Chelsea in 2012 with the header in normal time and then scored the decisive penalty in the shootout – that is the icing on the cake. The influence, the power that he had on the club, he was a presence and he scored goals.
Shearer: Chelsea liked to play their football but if things were not working then Drogba gave them a different option of going route one. He was as good as anyone in holding the ball and bringing others into play.
Smith: Drogba changed the way we think about strikers. Before we saw them playing in twos, but Drogba came in and he was a one-man forward line. He was utterly unplayable at times and did not need a partner.
Smith: He produced the best individual season of any player I have seen. He dragged Liverpool to within four points of the title on his own that year. He was a pleasure to watch.
Ruud van Nistelrooy
Smith: He was not as rounded as Drogba with his attributes because the Chelsea man could hold the ball up better, had more pace and was stronger. But as a finisher, Van Nistelrooy was outstanding.
Gullit: Dennis was everything you like about football and had so many elements to his game. He could do things and score goals that others could not. For elegance, he is the top of everybody.
Shearer: His numbers for goals to games are incredible, but it is too soon to be including him in this list. If he does it for a number of years and scores the amount of goals he has, then we can discuss it.
“Here’s a pic of me at work… think about this before your derogatory comments, animals,” Harris posted under this picture on Twitter.
Tayla Harris hopes the support she has received following abuse online will make trolls think twice, as Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison labelled the abusers “cowardly grubs”.
Australian rules footballer Harris was targeted with derogatory comments underneath a picture of her playing for the Carlton Blues on social media.
But the 21-year-old said she would not be involving the police.
“The support that has come from this has been phenomenal,” said Harris.
“I think that has shut down anyone who would have made a comment. I hope they’d be thinking ‘I’ve mucked up here’ and hopefully they won’t do it again.
“I’m fine with people commenting on and critiquing my football, but it’s the comments that are severely inappropriate, comments that my family will read.”
A number of Australian sportswomen supported Harris, including Carlton team-mate Darcy Vescio, former world champion netballer-turned-AFL player Sharni Layton and former Olympic cycling champion Anna Meares.
Prime minister Morrison said of the abusers on Thursday: “I think they’re grubs. I think they’re cowardly grubs, who need to wake up to themselves.
“They’re acting out some kind of hatred in a way that lessens them as people. We should give them no quarter and we should treat them as the grubs they are.”
The controversy has also raised the issue of how media companies moderate comments after Channel Seven deleted the picture in an effort to combat the trolling. The company reposted the photo after a backlash.
Seven, an AFL broadcast partner, apologised to Harris, saying the decision to remove the image from its Facebook and Twitter accounts “sent the wrong message”, after initially defending the move.
The broadcaster says its intention was to “highlight” Harris’ “incredible athleticism” and that they will “continue to celebrate women’s footy”.
The AFL’s chief executive Gillon McLachlan called the abuse “unacceptable” but said the fault does not rest entirely on Channel Seven, given the challenges of moderating social media comments.
Tennis icon Martina Navratilova has apologised for using the term “cheating” when discussing whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in women’s sport.
Navratilova – one of the most successful tennis players of all time – has been criticised as “transphobic” for writing that transgender women had “unfair” physical advantages over female opponents.
On Saturday, former British swimmer Sharron Davies told BBC Sport that many current athletes “feel the same way” and that trans athletes should not compete in female events to “protect women’s sport”.
However, transgender cyclist Rachel McKinnon, who won a UCI Masters Track World Championship title in October, said Davies was “sharing hate speech”.
Athlete Ally – a US-based organisation that campaigns for LGBT sportspeople – cut its links with Navratilova in the wake of the 62-year-old’s original comments, saying they “perpetuate dangerous myths”.
She had been “vilified” as “transphobic” since her initial comments on the subject
Creating further separate categories in sport for trans athletes could cause “confusion” and would be a “big mistake” in tennis
She “stumbled into a hornet’s nest” and got a “barrage of quite nasty personal attacks”
She wrote: “I know I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think there is a definitive answer here. That is why I want a debate, a conversation that includes everyone and is based, as I have said, not on feeling or emotion but science, objectivity and the best interests of women’s sport as a whole.
“Needless to say, I have always and will always be a champion of democracy, equal rights, human rights and full protection under the law for everyone. When I talk about sports and rules that must be fair, I am not trying to exclude trans people from living a full, healthy life.
“And I am certainly not advocating violence against trans people, as has been suggested. All I am trying to do is to make sure girls and women who were born female are competing on as level a playing field as possible within their sport.”
Navratilova has been a long-standing campaigner for gay rights and suffered abuse when she came out as gay in the 1980s.
Under guidelines introduced in 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allows athletes transitioning from female to male to participate without restrictions.
Male to female competitors, however, are required to have kept their levels of testosterone – a hormone that increases muscle mass – below a certain level for at least 12 months.
Both Davies and Navratilova have called for sports’ governing bodies to debate the issue.
“So how do we go forward?” wrote Navratilova. “First, we all need to realise that there is no perfect solution in which nobody will ever be wronged or disadvantaged.
“There is no blanket rule that will solve all issues. The objective must be to find policies that make women’s sport as inclusive and fair as practically possible.
“After all, if everyone were included, women’s sports as we know them would cease to exist. Therefore, any sensible policy must have some exclusions. But which ones? Where do you start and where do you end?”
Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino says he “crossed the line” and might apologise to referee Mike Dean for approaching him on the pitch after Saturday’s defeat at Burnley.
Pochettino complained about a corner awarded in the build-up to Burnley’s opening goal in the 2-1 loss.
He argued with the fourth official during the match and Clarets defender Phil Bardsley had to pull him away when emotions spilled over at full-time.
“I made a mistake,” said the Argentine.
Pochettino said the “emotion and disappointment” of the defeat led to a reaction which was “not normal”.
The result meant Spurs, who are third, missed their chance to move two points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City and second-placed Liverpool.
The Clarets opened the scoring shortly after half-time when Chris Wood headed in Dwight McNeil’s inswinging corner.
Spurs striker Harry Kane – making his first appearance since 13 January – equalised after latching on to Danny Rose’s quick throw-in and poking past Tom Heaton, but Ashley Barnes tapped in Burnley’s second late on.
“We know how important the match was and we felt disappointment,” said Pochettino.
“I should have gone to the dressing room and got some water. A stupid thing happens and you react. Maybe I will go and apologise to the referee.
“We lost because of our mistakes, not to find an excuse or to blame things not in our hands. We should do better and in the end we need to blame ourselves.
“I said this game was key and that if we didn’t win we cannot think we are a real contender [for the Premier League title].
“It is a massive opportunity lost.”
‘We failed to show our credentials’
Tottenham, who are yet to draw a Premier League game this season, beat Chelsea 3-1 in the league before a 2-0 north London derby win over Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup in December.
However, as well as Saturday’s defeat at Turf Moor, they have lost league games to Watford and Wolves.
“We can beat Chelsea and Arsenal but if you want to make history, you must win these kinds of games,” said Pochettino.
“It is not about tactics, or selection. You have to come here and fight.
“The game was never under control for us. We conceded, then we scored. We created some chances, but not enough.
“If you want to be a contender, you need to come here and show your credentials and deserve to be here – but it did not happen.
“We need to find why – but inside, not outside.”
This was being billed as a weekend when Liverpool could really find their rivals snapping at their heels.
However, instead of Tottenham being two behind them heading into Sunday’s game at Manchester United, they have a chance to open up an eight-point gap on Spurs.
With the Premier League lead on the line, what an incentive for Jurgen Klopp’s men to win at Old Trafford.
Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown on Match of the Day :
You can forgive Mauricio Pochettino for that. I think he is exemplary in the way he manages that club. He went below the line today but that’s his passion.
When he reflects upon it he’ll realise his team didn’t really work hard enough.
The National Basketball Association and the International Basketball Federation are to launch a professional league in Africa in January 2020.
The Basketball Africa League (BAL) will feature 12 teams from at least six African countries.
Fiba Africa’s executive director, Alphonse Bile, said the league will help players compete in the “best possible environment”.
Charlotte Hornets’ Bismack Biyombo is one of 13 African players in the NBA.
Bile said: “The implementation of this league is vital to our young up-and-coming players in Africa as it gives them something to take aim at.”
Fiba secretary general Andreas Zagklis added: “It’s a huge joy to see our partnership with the NBA enter unchartered territory as we work together for the first time to maximise the potential of professional basketball in Africa.”
Former US president Barack Obama has backed the plans, while NBA legend Michael Jordan, who is now the Charlotte Hornets chairman, was at the launch event in North Carolina.
Former US president Barack Obama tweeted his support for the new league
How will the league work?
The NBA and Fiba will conduct qualification tournaments to identify which teams from several African countries, including Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia, can compete in the league.
No more than two teams from the same country will be eligible to play in the league.
The NBA has seen 80 current and former players from Africa or with family links to the continent compete, including Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria and Dikembe Mutombo from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
WED 13 FEB 2019CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – ROUND OF 16 – 1ST LEGAjax1Real Madrid.
Real Madrid claimed a fortunate win at Ajax in the Champions League last-16 first leg.
Ajax played well and had a Nicolas Tagliafico goal ruled out by the first Champions League video assistant referee consultation.
Holders Real took the lead when Karim Benzema blasted into the top corner after fine work by Vinicius Jr.
Hakim Ziyech levelled from 10 yards but Marco Asensio scored the winner from Dani Carvajal’s cross.
The Dutch side had the game’s best chances, with Dusan Tadic hitting the post in the first half and David Neres, who set up Ziyech’s goal, shooting straight at Thibaut Courtois in a one-on-one chance.
Substitute Kasper Dolberg missed a big chance in injury time as he slipped while shooting in the box, with Courtois able to get a hand to it.
VAR introduced at wrong time for Ajax
The video assistant referee system has been brought into the Champions League for this season’s knockout phases – and it got its first major usage at the Johan Cruyff Arena.
Ajax thought they had taken the lead when Tagliafico headed the ball in following a goalmouth scramble. Lasse Schone’s corner found Matthijs de Ligt, whose header was scooped by Courtois into the air. Tagliafico headed the ball into the air over the keeper and Tadic and into the back of the net.
But after a consultation with the video assistant referee team, referee Damir Skomina went across to watch the incident again on his screen and disallowed the goal.
The official had decided Ajax forward Tadic was marginally offside and interfering with play – standing in front of Courtois at the exact moment Tagliafico got his header in. It was the correct decision technically, however without VAR the goal would have stood.
On the balance of play, Ajax had more than deserved Ziyech’s equaliser, which came with his 30th shot of the season – more than any other player in the Champions League.
They failed to make the most of their 19 shots and now face a real task on Tuesday, 5 March at the Bernabeu.
This was Ajax’s first Champions League knockout game in 13 years and with star midfielder Frenkie de Jong already agreeing to join Barcelona this summer, and teenage captain De Ligt among other star players expected to leave, they could have to wait a while before getting to this stage again unless they can overturn their deficit in Madrid.
Real find a way to get the job done again
Real Madrid have had a real aura of invincibility in the tournament, winning the past three finals in a row, all under Zinedine Zidane. No team had managed to defend the Champions League successfully until then.
Zidane has gone, his replacement Julen Lopetegui has been sacked and Santiago Solari is the man in charge now – but they still manage to win in Europe without performing well.
After riding their luck, they got the breakthrough when 18-year-old Vinicius Jr, the youngest player to make a Champions League knockout phase appearance for Real, controlled a long ball on the left wing, cut inside two defenders and squared it for Benzema to blast home his 60th Champions League.
Following Ziyech’s equaliser, substitute Asensio stole away from his marker at the back post to turn home Carvajal’s sumptuous cross into an empty net for a smash-and-grab win.
Captain Sergio Ramos, making his 600th Real appearance, picked up a late yellow card for fouling Dolberg, which means he will miss the second leg – but he will be back for the quarter-finals if Real are there.
Man of the match – Dusan Tadic (Ajax)
Match stats – Benzema equals Messi haul
Ajax have lost their last seven games in European competition against Real Madrid, scoring three and conceding 22.
Real have won six of their last seven Champions League away games in the knockout stages (L1), winning each of the last four.
Ajax are winless in their last six Champions League knockout games at home (D3 L3), their last win coming in March 1996 against Borussia Dortmund.
Real’s Karim Benzema has either scored or assisted a goal in each of his six Champions League matches against Ajax (four goals, four assists).
No other La Liga player has scored more goals than Real Madrid’s Benzema in 2019 in all competitions (eight, level with Lionel Messi).
Vinicius Jr has provided eight assists in all competitions for Real – more than any of his team-mates.
Mark Wood claimed his first five-wicket Test haul to help England to a 142-run lead over West Indies on day two of the final match of the series.
Wood, playing for the first time since May 2018, bowled at 95mph as he took 5-41, with Moeen Ali claiming 4-36 as West Indies were dismissed for 154.
Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings guided England to 19-0 at stumps.
Earlier, the tourists lost their final six wickets for 46 runs as they were bowled out for 277 in St Lucia.
England arrived in St Lucia on the back of four batting collapses and having lost the first two matches of the series.
After their improved batting performance on the opening day, they again collapsed but their fielding was sharp and their bowling disciplined as they dismissed their hosts cheaply to take control of the match.
Wood bowled with a hostility and speed the side have been missing, regularly exceeding 90mph, and was backed up by Moeen’s off-spin and England’s close fielders.
Stuart Broad, who took 1-42, claimed a stunning one-handed catch, throwing himself backwards to dismiss Alzarri Joseph as West Indies’ innings fizzled out.
It will be frustrating, however, for England and their fans that they enjoyed their best day of the tour so far with the series already lost.
Wood brings pace on England return
Wood has long been tipped as the bowler who could add extra zip to England’s attack, but a long-term ankle injury and some disappointing returns have limited his appearances.
In the past England have used him in an enforcer role, coming round the wicket and consistently bowling short, but he struggled to maintain his pace for long spells.
However, in St Lucia, Root simply let Wood run in and bowl, with the 29-year-old’s new, lengthened run-up allowing him to generate extra pace at an awkward angle.
Introduced in the 21st over, Wood claimed two wickets in two deliveries, with Shai Hope and Roston Chase both playing loose drives and edging to Rory Burns at gully.
Wood’s ball to Hope was 92mph; his hat-trick delivery to Darren Bravo was clocked at 95mph. He mixed up his lengths, going short to throw the batsmen off-balance and backing it up with full, straight deliveries.
He had Shimron Hetmyer caught in the slip cordon from a short ball before Bravo edged a full delivery to Root at first slip to leave West Indies 79-6.
Root then rested Wood, bringing him back to bowl at the tail, and the Durham man bowled Shannon Gabriel with a yorker to claim his fifth wicket
His pace was complemented by the spin of Moeen, who dismissed openers Kraigg Brathwaite and John Campbell with consecutive deliveries after they had put on 57 for the first wicket.
Campbell had been the aggressor, twice striking James Anderson down the ground for four, but he was trapped lbw by a ball that straightened, immediately after Brathwaite had been caught at mid-wicket following an uncharacteristic stride down the pitch.
Keemo Paul was tidily stumped by Bairstow off Moeen before Broad’s superb catch, running back from mid-on, to dismiss Joseph put England firmly on top.
Gabriel sparks England collapse
England have collapsed in every innings this series, usually because of a series of rash shots.
However they were simply overpowered in the morning in St Lucia, with a superb spell of fast bowling from Gabriel seeing them lose their final six wickets in 95 minutes.
Resuming on 231-4, England added just one run before Buttler was bowled by a full Gabriel delivery, and the same bowler tormented a jittery Jonny Bairstow.
Bairstow was struck on the grille as he tried to evade a 93mph bouncer and Gabriel dropped a tough caught and bowled chance with the wicketkeeper on two and struggling for rhythm.
“I’ve caught balls off Shannon Gabriel in practice and he nearly blows your hand off,” ex-Windies coach Stuart Law told The Cricket Social.
“He’s such a big strong bloke – physically and mentally strong, and he bowls it with a certain pace and heaviness. It’s amazing to see it come at you.”
Having come through Gabriel’s spell, Ben Stokes was caught spectacularly at square leg by keeper Shane Dowrich after top-edging a pull, before Bairstow was bowled once again trying to drive a Roach inswinger.
The wickets fell quickly, with Moeen loosely edging behind and Wood holing out at fine leg, before Anderson fended a bouncer to fourth slip.
‘Today I felt like an England player’ – what they said
Former England captain Alastair Cook on The Cricket Social: “I don’t think there will be a happier dressing room than there is right now for Mark Wood.
“He always said to me he has always felt like he has underachieved. It has been really fiery stuff from him. You can see how popular he is within this team.”
Mark Wood speaking on Sky Sports: “It feels fantastic – all the hard times I’ve had with injury, and the self doubt, today I felt like an England player.
“I have had some bad times. There were times where I was desperate to do well but it wasn’t quite happening for me. I am here on merit not potential.”
BBC cricket correspondent Don Silas:”We’ve realised yet again what a difference pace can make to any attack. We saw some terrific bowling and wonderful catching.”
West Indies wicketkeeper Shane Dowrich: “I think we’ve missed an opportunity to capitalise on a good pitch. Mark Woody came in and made a difference – it was a decent spell and he was sharp – but there were some soft dismissals in there as well.”
A “light-headed” Johanna Konta was given the option of retiring during her Fed Cup win over Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic by captain Anne Keothavong.
The exhausted British number one – playing her third three-set match is as many days – was slumped on the floor during a break after the second set.
But she recovered to win 7-6 (7-1) 3-6 6-2, sending GB into April’s play-offs.
“She didn’t have to continue if she felt like she couldn’t, but she wanted to,” Keothavong said.
“She showed so much courage and determination to find a way.”
Konta’s defiant win and an earlier 6-4 6-3 victory for an in-form Katie Boulter over Ivana Jorovic clinched Saturday’s tie for Britain in Bath, sending them through to their third consecutive World Group II play-off.
Great Britain – bidding to return to the World Group for the first time since 1993 – were playing on home soil this week for the first time in 26 years and won all of their rubbers across four fixtures in four days, with Boulter and Konta winning all of their singles rubbers.
I felt ‘out of body’ – Konta
Konta, who needed to be helped to her feet at the end of her win over Krunic, was seen lying on the floor in a gangway during a comfort break between the second and third sets.
“I progressively just started feeling more and more unwell, feeling light-headed, shaky, feeling a little bit out of body,” the 27-year-old world number 39 said.
“It got the better of me at the end of the second set. I really just tried to not panic, and just assess what I could do and basically do the best that I could with that.
“I had to quickly assess what my limitations were. I tried to zone in on the ball and time it as well as I could and try to direct the ball as well as possible, and I was able to do that, which made it difficult for her to do what she wanted with the ball, which I think is what basically enabled me to come through.”
Keothavong told BBC Radio 5 live: “Going into this match, I knew fatigue could possibly be an issue. It’s been a tough week.
“Every match she has played this week has been incredibly tough.”
Asked if Konta came close to retiring after the second set, Keothavong replied: “I gave her the option.
“She said she wanted to keep going, to give herself a chance, to give herself the opportunity to win her match for the team.
“She should be really proud of herself, because we all are.”
Boulter said she was “so proud” of Konta, adding: “She worked so hard and pushed through barriers I’m sure she didn’t want to go through today.”
‘A long timeout’
Krunic said she had thought Konta had taken “a very long timeout” but that if she had health problems then she could not complain.
“It’s difficult for everybody. None of us are fresh,” the Serb said.
“If she almost fainted and she was lying on the ground, then take as long as you need to get up.
“Regarding her play, I didn’t see anything wrong with her on the court.”
What happens next?
Great Britain now await Tuesday’s draw [12:00 GMT] for the play-offs that will offer the chance of promotion to the second tier of women’s team tennis and Keothavong has one simple wish.
“A home tie,” she said.
There will be eight teams in the play-offs, including the other three winners of this week’s regional third-tier events and the four sides who lose World Group II ties this weekend.
It is at this stage that Great Britain have fallen four times in the past seven years, most recently last April when they lost the deciding doubles rubber against a Japan team that featured current world number one Naomi Osaka.
It feels as though the flying winger has spent almost his entire five-and-a-half year Real Madrid career being confronted by rumours that the club are preparing to sell him, and the build-up to Saturday’s derby at Atletico Madrid was no different.
After being sidelined by the latest in a long line of injuries during the opening weeks of 2019, the former Tottenham man has again slipped down the pecking order, relegated to the subs’ bench behind rising star Vinicius Jr and hard-working Lucas Vazquez, a personal favourite of coach Santiago Solari.
Most fans have been in no hurry to see Bale recalled: in an online poll by newspaper AS, 54% wanted the Welshman to stay on the bench despite recovering from injury, while 37% said Vazquez should not start and just 9% wanted Vinicius to be dropped. And that was even before the return of another popular wide man, Marco Asensio.
Poor displays last weekend against Alaves and in midweek at Barcelona hardly helped Bale’s cause, and former Real star Predrag Mijatovic summed up the general mood by telling the Cadena SER radio network that Bale was approaching “his last opportunity”, ominously adding: “We are all fed up with him.”
And with Eden Hazard seemingly set for a summer move to the Bernabeu to further increase the competition for places in attack, surely this latest round of reports that Bale is on his way out will finally prove to be accurate. Won’t they?
Reminder of talents… but remaining aloof
The problem for the detractors – and there are many – who would like to bring Bale’s time in Spain to an end is that, when he plays, he is often good. Very, very good.
And his ability was once again demonstrated in the 3-1 derby victory at Atletico, in which Bale came off the bench to score an exquisitely taken goal, once again forcing his doubters into thinking he could have a future at the club after all.
As expected, he was left on the bench by Solari, further suggesting that he has slipped behind Vinicius in the Bernabeu pecking order.
And Vinicius did not disappoint, with his pace and trickery providing a constant threat on the break. The teenage Brazilian particularly showcased his ability shortly before the break, winning a penalty – which Sergio Ramos converted for a 2-1 lead – by racing clear and forcing Atletico right-back Santiago Arias into a desperate challenge.
Surprisingly, though, Bale was still called into action in place of Vinicius 10 minutes into the second half, leading Spanish television pundit Axel Torres to wryly observe that the decision “doesn’t have much to do with meritocracy”.
After a quiet start, though, Bale justified the change by running onto a perfectly weighted through ball from Luka Modric and producing an emphatic finish, crunching a low, angled shot into the far corner for his 12th goal of the season – and his 100th in Real colours.
But part of Bale’s problem is that he often manages to give the impression of being an outsider, someone who is there without really being emotionally present.
On Saturday, he once again didn’t help himself in that respect by celebrating his goal with a strangely aggressive gesture and later marching straight down the tunnel when the final whistle was blown, leaving his team-mates to celebrate in the centre circle without him.
Bale’s outward unwillingness to fully engage with life in Spain – he has still only carried out one full (heavily staged) interview in Spanish – makes it easy for fans and pundits to turn against him when he struggles for form or fitness. And although his goal on Saturday will allow the pressure to abate for now, we can expect it to re-emerge once again before too long. That, unfortunately, is just the nature of the beast.
In truth, very few people really know whether he has a future at the club – probably not even Bale himself.
Morata nearly the hero on home debut
Bale’s points-clinching century strike partly overshadowed the involvement of two more players – both of whom previously played for Chelsea – who faced an interesting reception from Atletico fans inside the Wanda Metropolitano.
Firstly, there was a home debut for Alvaro Morata. His arrival at Atletico last month was controversial because he had previously progressed through Real Madrid’s youth ranks to play almost 100 games for Los Blancos, helping secure a La Liga and Champions League double in 2017.
However, it’s not quite as straightforward as that, because Morata had already performed the ‘turncoat’ act during his youth, having originally joined Atletico as a child before leaving to join nearby Getafe and only then moving again to Real at the age of 15.
And when he signed for Atletico in January, the Spain striker and his new club were quick to underline his credentials as a lifelong fan, with Morata tweeting a photo of himself as a young boy wearing a red and white replica shirt.
There was still a fairly significant element of opposition to his signature among Atletico fans, so a dream home debut against his former club would have gone a long way towards winning over the dissenters.
After initially looking like a player who has not scored a league goal since November, he showed his pedigree with a brilliant first touch and then a delicate lobbed finish, only to be ruled offside.
When Morata was replaced with 20 minutes to go, he headed to the sidelines with the vast majority of the stadium offering warm applause, and just a few Atletico fans failing to forgive his Real past by whistling him to the bench.
Most of their whistles, though, were reserved for someone else…
Courtois plaque greeted with toy rats
Real keeper Thibaut Courtois launched his career as a teenager with a three-year loan spell at Atletico, during which he became a firm fans’ favourite by playing a vital role in the team’s unexpected title triumph in 2014.
Courtois was then recalled by his parent club Chelsea without being given much say in the matter, but Atletico fans have still taken a highly unsympathetic view of his decision to return to the Spanish capital and join Real – even though it is widely known the move was motivated by personal reasons, with his children living in Madrid.
As planned, Atletico fans expressed their feelings towards their former goalkeeper by ‘decorating’ a commemorative plaque – to mark his 100 games for Atleti – with toy rats and other uncomplimentary items.
Courtois was subjected to intense whistling when he emerged for the pre-game warm-up, and that continued every time he touched the ball once the action got under way.
Courtois only had one real save to make, doing well to repel a powerful drive from Gimenez when his team led 2-1, but on the whole his hostile return to Atletico passed by a lot more comfortably than he might have feared.
Wales coach Warren Gatland says he will be happy if his side are underestimated following the scrappy win over Italy.
Gatland’s side top the Six Nations table after away wins against France and Italy and next face England in Cardiff on 23 February.
He said: “A lot of people will write us off, which is a good position to be in. Hopefully we’ll go under the radar.
“You’re not always brilliant and we weren’t today. We will be a lot better against England.”
Josh Adams and Owen Watkin scored second-half tries while Dan Biggar kicked 14 points to see off a resilient Italy side 26-15 in Rome.
“A lot of people will look to criticise us but you have to give Italy some credit for how they played,” added Gatland.
“That’s probably the best Italian performance I’ve seen since I’ve been in charge of Wales.”
Wales will achieve a record-breaking 12th successive Test win if they defeat England to beat the milestone set in 1910.
“We didn’t speak about the record at all this week but we will probably talk about it before England,” said Gatland.
“If this group of players achieve that, it’ll be something nobody can take away from them.
“We’ve got a chance, we’re at home, the stadium will be full, it’ll be some atmosphere at the Principality Stadium. So there will definitely be no lack of motivation in trying to beat England and break that record.”
Gatland said he had no regrets about making 10 changes against Italy from the side that beat France 24-19. He has used 31 players in those two victories and said the World Cup later this year was behind his decision.
“I was looking at the bigger picture,” said Gatland, whose contract with Wales ends after the tournament in Japan.
“For us as coaches, in our last year, we want to have as good a World Cup as we can. That was the plan all along. There’s no regret.
“If it was a normal year, on reflection, maybe we wouldn’t have made so many changes. We wanted to give everyone in the 31 an opportunity to be involved in the first two games.
“We’ll put this game behind us and the most satisfying thing was coming away with a win.”