The battle for Bellingham: Liverpool close in as Real Madrid lurk

Laurens unsure Bellingham would choose Liverpool over Man City (2:04)

Julien Laurens has doubts that Jude Bellingham would go to Liverpool if they fail to qualify for the Champions League. (2:04)

The battle for Jude Bellingham is hotting up, with Liverpool in pole position -- ESPN's Insider Notebook has the latest.

Jump to: Real Madrid ready for battle | Barcelona plan more spending | Shakhtar set for MLS fundraising drive | Alonso's new deal | Prem clubs to help financially struggling fans

Liverpool lead chase for Bellingham

Liverpool are viewed as the favourites to sign Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund, multiple sources told ESPN, and are leading the chase despite Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Real Madrid also tracking the 19-year-old.

One source connected to a rival bidding club believes Liverpool are forging a close relationship with the player's camp which could prove a significant factor. Another source said the broad framework of a deal to take Bellingham to Anfield may even be advancing, although both the player and his father, Mark, have previously publicly dismissed the idea a decision on his next club has been made.

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Dortmund are expected to allow Bellingham to depart either in January or, far more likely, next summer and the most obvious glimmer of hope for Liverpool's rivals comes in the Bundesliga club's valuation.

It was believed Dortmund would accept a fee in the region of €100 million but reports this week suggested that figure could rise to €150m. There remains hope among the interested clubs that the final fee will be towards the lower number, but the presence of several big-hitters could trigger a bidding battle, while Bellingham's stock may surge higher given he is likely to form a key part of England's World Cup squad in Qatar.

Liverpool want to revitalise their midfield and opted against making a big-money move in the summer -- signing Arthur Melo on loan from Juventus instead -- choosing to wait for Bellingham. The Reds are willing to commit a huge sum to land him but any failure to qualify for next season's Champions League would place a significant strain on their finances.

Chelsea's new owners, led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, are determined to assemble a younger squad of next generation talent and view Bellingham as an ideal candidate to strengthen their midfield, especially with N'Golo Kante and Jorginho in the final year of their contracts.

United tried to sign Bellingham in 2020, but he chose to leave Birmingham City for Dortmund instead. Bellingham has thrived in Germany, taking his game to new heights this season, registering nine goals and two assists in 19 games this season. He became the Bundesliga's youngest ever captain when leading Dortmund at Cologne in September.

The race for Bellingham's signature will intensify and transfers of this magnitude often involve many twists, but there is a perception that Liverpool's rivals have ground to make up right now. -- James Olley

...but Real Madrid continue to lurk

Dortmund's Bellingham is one of Real Madrid's key targets for next summer, sources told ESPN. Los Blancos know they face "very stiff" competition for his signature from Premier League clubs, but they consider the signing of 19-year-old a priority as they look to continue regenerating a midfield that is still led by Luka Modric, who is 37.

Madrird did strengthen their midfield in the past transfer windows with the signings of Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni. The Spanish club now see Bellingham as the ideal addition to complete a line in which Federico Valverde has become key on the right flank.

Madrid are aware that Liverpool also want the England international but believe they are in a strong position to acquire him because of the excellent rapport between club president Florentino Perez and Borussia's CEO Joachim Watzke.

The LaLiga giants are very happy with Modric and Toni Kroos but are already looking to the future. Madrid plan to offer Modric, who becomes a free agent next summer, a one-year contract extension while Kroos has stated his desire to end his career at the Bernabeu and has not yet set a date for retirement.

The same sources told ESPN that it is "still very early days" to know what Bellingham's decision will be, but the vibes are positive after early inquiries. -- Rodrigo Faez

Barcelona eye more spending in January window

Barcelona will turn to the transfer market again in January in part due to fears they could be forced to work under tighter financial restrictions again next summer, sources told ESPN.

Barca sold club assets worth over €700m in the summer to fund a spending spree of over €150m and to increase their LaLiga-imposed spending cap, which includes their outlay on wages each season, to over €600m.

However, without the sale of more assets on the books for the 2023-24 seasons, LaLiga president Javier Tebas has already warned them their spending limit is likely to be reduced next summer. Therefore, given the risk they will only be able to spend at a ratio of 1:4 again next season, which allows them to spend €1 for ever €4 saved in wages or made in transfer fees, they will look to do business in the January window while their ratio is still at 1:1.

Barca's primary targets are a right-back and a deep-lying midfielder to eventually replace Sergio Busquets, sources told ESPN, with the club captain expected to leave the club when his contract expires at the end of the season. -- Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens

Shakhtar set for U.S. tour to highlight Ukraine's plight

Shakhtar Donetsk are planning to become the first major Ukrainian sports team to travel to the United States, sources have told ESPN, in an effort to raise funds for families affected by the Russian invasion of the country and heighten awareness of the ongoing conflict.

Sources said Shakhtar are aiming to play up to four friendly games during their midseason break in January and talks have already taken place with D.C. United, Inter Miami and FC Dallas.

Shakhtar have not been able to play in Donetsk since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the region became a conflict zone between Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists. Despite Russia's full-scale invasion of the country in February, the Ukrainian Premier League returned in August with all teams forced to play home games in closed stadiums in western cities such as Kyiv and Lviv.

Shakhtar's most recent league game, against FC Oleksandriya in Lviv last Saturday, was halted for an hour and 40 minutes because of an air-raid warning and the team is forced to travel by road to all games due to commercial flights being banned as a result of air space being closed.

With Shakhtar preparing to play in the Europa League in February, however, the club are pressing ahead with their plans to travel to the U.S. in order to maintain fitness as well as offering a visible symbol of Ukraine's fight. -- Mark Ogden

Alonso set for new Barca deal

Barcelona are in advanced to negotiations to extend Marcos Alonso's contract by an additional two seasons with his terms due to expire next summer, sources told ESPN.

Alonso, 31, joined as a free agent from Chelsea at the start of September after his contract with the Premier League side was mutually terminated. The Spain left-back only signed an initial one-year deal at Camp Nou, but Barca have already expressed a desire to prolong his stay by an additional two seasons.

Alonso scored his first goal for Barca in the midweek win over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League and has made 10 appearances in all competitions since signing. Several of those appearances have come as a centre-back in recent weeks as Barca deal with an injury crisis in defence. -- Sam Marsden and Moises Llorens

Premier League clubs to help during cost of living crisis

Three Premier League clubs are in talks with a private healthcare company to explore ways of providing staff and fans with support during the United Kingdom's cost of living crisis, sources have told ESPN.

Founded in 2019 by former investment banker Stella Smith, pirkx is an employee wellbeing benefits platform aiming to provide personalised medical care at an affordable price.

For £4.50 a month - with no joining fee and no minimum contract - members are given 24/7 access to a doctor by virtual appointment, a confidential counselling service as well as discounted gym membership and other retail discounts.

Sources have confirmed that the company is also talking to the English Football League, the Scottish Football Association and Football Australia about a deal which could see staff given membership as an additional perk of their employment or fans rewarded with their loyalty with access to the scheme. Preliminary conversations with administrative bodies of other sports -- including rugby and cricket -- have also taken place.

Partly due to a backlog caused by Covid-19 and falling number of doctors, estimates indicate just 15% of GP appointments on the National Health Service take place within two weeks of booking.

Football clubs, particularly in England and Scotland's lower leagues, are seeking ways to offer cheaper healthcare and player coverage has also been part of the discussions.

pirkx has around 16,000 subscribers and the company stresses that any serious medical issues would be referred to a specialist, either on a private basis or the NHS. -- James Olley