Lionel Messi predicts "Barcelona will grow with Xavi" because of his knowledge of football and the club. 

Former midfielder Xavi was this month appointed as Barca's head coach following the dismissal of Ronald Koeman. 

A penalty from Memphis Depay gave the Catalan giants a 1-0 victory over Espanyol in his first game at the helm last weekend. 

The Blaugrana had 11 shots in the first half at Camp Nou – the most they have had in the opening 45 minutes of any game this season – but had also faced 12 by the final whistle, the most in a Barca boss' opening LaLiga game in charge since Frank Rijkaard (17) in August 2002. 

A potentially pivotal Champions League clash with Benfica is next up on Tuesday, and Messi believes his former team-mate Xavi has what it takes to get the Catalan giants back on track. 

"Barcelona will grow with Xavi. He is a coach who knows a lot and knows the club perfectly," Messi told Marca. 

Messi will be hoping to get his hands on the Champions League trophy this season, having linked up with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain. 

While the Argentina captain acknowledged they are among the favourites for European success, he feels Mauricio Pochettino's team have plenty of work to do to reach the required level. 

"Everyone says that we are the favourites and I will not deny that we are one of the candidates because of our name, but we still need things to be a really strong team," he said. 

PSG will book their place in the Champions League round of 16 if they beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.

Messi has scored seven goals in as many Champions League appearances against City, who lost the reverse fixture 2-0 back in September.

Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets admitted the embattled LaLiga giants needed to beat Espanyol after the Xavi era opened with a 1-0 victory in Saturday's derby.

Xavi's first match in charge resulted in three points against city rivals Espanyol at Camp Nou, where Memphis Depay's 48th-minute penalty settled the contest.

Barca have struggled this season, leading to the sacking of Ronald Koeman and prompting the return of club great Xavi, who had been in charge of Qatari outfit Al-Sadd.

Reflecting on the result, which saw Barca move within eight points of top spot before Real Madrid's fixture at Granada on Sunday, Busquets welcomed the win.

"We needed this victory for the team to continue to grow and regain our confidence. We have a new coach, a new philosophy and we will find a way up," Busquets said.

"I think generally we played well. I think the scoreline is a bit tight. They had some great chances, any team can cause you problems but we needed the win."

 

Barca have not lost any of their last 23 matches against Espanyol in LaLiga (W18 D5), keeping 17 clean sheets in those games, their longest unbeaten streak against the Periquitos in the competition.

At home, Barca have won their last 12 meetings against Espanyol in LaLiga, after winning just one of their previous five (D3 L1), since a 1-2 defeat in February 2009, in a match that featured Gerard Pique, Busquets and Xavi in the Blaugrana side.

"We need to believe, to regain confidence, little by little we will get better, with new ideas, a new philosophy, and we will find a way up," Busquets added.

"Right now we have a group of youngsters helping us. It's really important to have this young blood, especially right now because of the financial situation and we can't make many signings."

Depay has won three penalties in LaLiga this season, becoming the Barcelona player with the most penalties earned in a single season in the competition since Luis Suarez in 2018-19 (also three). Since 2005-06, only Neymar has won more in the same campaign in LaLiga for Barcelona (eight).

Barca's Depay has scored in each of his last three games in LaLiga (three goals), his best run in the top five European leagues since March-April 2018 (six games for Lyon – seven goals).

Barcelona head coach Xavi has denied reports that striker Sergio Aguero has been forced to retire.

Rumours emerged on Saturday that the Argentina international will hold a news conference next week to confirm he will not resume his playing career.

Aguero has not played a game since the 1-1 draw with Deportivo Alaves at Camp Nou on October 30, during which he was substituted after feeling dizzy and suffering apparent discomfort in his chest.

Barca later confirmed he would be unavailable for three months while doctors monitored a suspected cardiovascular problem. The 33-year-old tweeted on November 12 to insist he was "always positive" amid suggestions he would not be able to continue playing.

Xavi, who oversaw a 1-0 win over Espanyol in his first match in charge, insisted it was not true that Aguero's retirement was confirmed.

"What's come out isn't true," he told reporters. "I spoke with him, he's calm and happy. I asked him to come back when he was feeling okay."

 

Memphis Depay's penalty sealed Barca's victory over their city rivals, although they rode their luck in the closing stages as Raul de Tomas twice hit the post and Landry Dimata headed a glorious chance for an equaliser wide.

"I'm very happy with the three points and the effort of the players," said Xavi. "We're not in the best of spirits and Espanyol created a lot of problems for us. And we deserved the luck with the posts.

"I'm happy, and I think it was a deserved victory. What couldn't fail, which was the attitude, didn't fail."

The result moved Barca to within eight points of LaLiga leaders Sevilla, who earlier drew with Alaves, after 13 LaLiga matches.

While a title shot appears unlikely at this stage, Xavi – an eight-time league champion in a glittering playing career with the club – saw no reason to discount a challenge for the trophy.

"We're far away but there are matches left. I'm optimistic and why can't we fight for the title?" he said.

Xavi enjoyed a winning start as Barcelona head coach as they claimed a 1-0 derby win over Espanyol at Camp Nou.

Appointed as Ronald Koeman's successor and tasked with restoring both style and results to Barca, the former midfielder would not have wanted to countenance the end of a 22-match unbeaten run against their city rivals.

The Blaugrana were profligate with their chances, though, and it took a controversial Memphis Depay penalty to secure victory as Espanyol missed out on the chance to move three points clear of Barca in the table.

Barca had 77 per cent of the possession in the first 15 minutes, Depay and Ilias Akhomach leading a dangerous-looking attack in front of a buoyant crowd of more than 74,000.

However, Espanyol proved a difficult defence to breach and the visitors came closest to snatching the lead, Raul de Tomas' shot deflecting just over Marc-Andre ter Stegen's crossbar.

Three minutes after half-time, Leandro Cabrera was penalised for a challenge on Depay – despite appearing to make contact with the ball – and the Netherlands international swept home the spot-kick.

Barca could not build on their lead, though, and De Tomas came within inches of an equaliser when his free-kick clipped the outside of the left-hand post.

Landry Dimata should have snatched a point, but he could only nod wide of Ter Stegen's goal from six yards out, and De Tomas was again denied by the woodwork from another unmarked header.

 

What does it mean? Encouraging start for Xavi's new era

This was a slender victory that only moved Barca to within eight points of league leaders Sevilla, so there are few reasons to become too excited.

However, the signs of Xavi's influence were clear: the strong man-to-man pressing, the possession-based play and the commitment to attack were all obvious, even if the end product was not always the best.

This was an encouraging start to life for the new coach.

Xavi making his mark

There were eight graduates from the La Masia academy in the starting line-up and they seemed determined to carry out Xavi's instructions to the letter.

Barca had 11 shots in the first half, their most in a LaLiga match this season, and enjoyed 70 per cent of the ball before the break.

Espanyol pay for slow start

Espanyol were on a run of three wins in six games, as many as in their previous 25, and you would have thought the chance to ruin Xavi's day would have been a huge incentive.

As it was, they only truly threatened in the final 15 minutes and mustered just two shots on target.

What's next?

Xavi gets his first taste of Champions League action as a coach on Tuesday, when Barca host Benfica.

Xavi emphasised the importance of a "united" Barcelona and promised to do everything he can to improve results at the Camp Nou. 

The 41-year-old was recently appointed as Ronald Koeman's successor, returning to the club where he spent 17 seasons during his playing career.

The former Spain international has spent the past two and a half years in charge of Qatari club Al Sadd, and knows the extent of the task at hand to turn fortunes around at the Catalan giants, but wants the fans to get on board with the project from the start.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of his first game in charge against Espanyol on Saturday, Xavi said: "We need all the support. We will give our all on the field. We will not have a problem with attitude, that's for sure. We are going to give our all.

"We have to be united. We will try to make [the fans] happy, enjoying good football.

"It is more than a professional aspect. I am a Barca fan, and no-one is going to change this. I am going to give it my all to try and get good results.

"We are Barca, and we have to give more than 100 per cent.

"We’ve had group and individual chats, we don't have more time and I hope we can see things in the game and psychologically. We're here to get results.

"We cannot drop points, of course. We are ninth in the standings and that's the reality. We cannot drop points tomorrow. We have to win."

The World Cup winner also spoke about the importance of experience and youth in his squad, specifically mentioning the return of 38-year-old Dani Alves and the promise of 17-year-old Gavi.

"[Alves] is going to help us a lot in all aspects," he added. "I know him really well, he's a winner. He's so positive, he has a great character, and also on the field we saw it. We saw his last games, he's in great shape physically.

"He's an outstanding player, one of the best I saw in my career. He's going to help us a lot. It is a shame he won't be able to play until January.

"[Gavi] can play as a winger, an attacking midfielder, also as a pivot. He has a complete profile. He has good physical conditions. He's a versatile player, and a really important player for us."

Carlo Ancelotti reflected on a 2-1 defeat to Espanyol as Real Madrid's worst performance since he returned to the club.

A miserable week for Los Blancos took another turn for the worse when they missed the chance to restore a three-point lead at the top of LaLiga at RCDE Stadium on Sunday.

Sensationally beaten 2-1 by Moldovan side Sheriff in the Champions League in midweek, Madrid went down by the same scoreline following goals from Raul de Tomas and Aleix Vidal.

Karim Benzema pulled one back, but Ancelotti pulled no punches with his verdict after watching his side slip up before the international break.

The Italian said: "It was our worst game [of the season]. We played badly, there is not much more to say. We have to change our attitude this week.

"The defeat is not an accident because we deserved to lose. We are worried because two defeats in a row at this club is not customary and we must remedy this, correcting the errors."

Ancelotti says Madrid must reflect on their shortcomings during the international break.

He added: "We have started with an idea and the idea has changed with the first goal conceded. We were not able to keep calm and the idea and the team has been poorly positioned with the ball and without it.

"The approach was quite clear, I am not going to explain it now. The team has been very messy, with and without the ball. We have to fix it, I have discussed it with the players and they agree.

"Now comes the break. Sometimes it is better to play again immediately, but you have to use the break to reflect."

Real Madrid suffered a dismal end to a humiliating week as they were stunned 2-1 by Espanyol, missing out on the chance to restore a three-point lead at the top of LaLiga.

Madrid were the victims of one of the greatest shocks in Champions League history in midweek as they were incredibly beaten 2-1 by Moldovan debutants Sheriff at the Santiago Bernabeu.

And they now only lead LaLiga on goal difference after a limp performance at RCDE Stadium, where Espanyol took a 2-0 lead through goals from Raul de Tomas and Aleix Vidal.

Karim Benzema was in inspired form, and he gave Madrid hope in the 71st minute, yet the visitors were again left to reflect on a humbling despite their star forward's best efforts.

Save for a couple of tame shots from Benzema, Madrid struggled to create chances early on despite dominating possession, and they were punished against the run of play as De Tomas stole in at the near post to turn home Adrian Embarba's low right-wing cross.

Espanyol continued in the ascendancy without adding to their lead in the first half and were fortunate not to be pegged back four minutes into the second as Eder Militao's header drifted wide.

But Madrid's attacking threat remained largely conspicuous by its absence and Espanyol doubled their advantage when former Barcelona man Vidal was allowed to surge into open space from midfield, skip past Nacho and side-foot beyond Thibaut Courtois.

The hosts should have made it 3-0 as Madrid were caught cold on the counter, only for Sergi Darder to make a horrible mess of his finish with only Courtois to beat.

Benzema was then rightly denied by the offside flag but, after Darder stung Courtois' palms at the other end, the France international gave Madrid a chance with a superb individual effort, evading several challenges on the edge of the box before bending a pinpoint strike inside the right-hand post.

And Benzema looked to have teed Eden Hazard up for a spectacular leveller, but the offside flag was again correctly raised as Espanyol held on to deal Madrid an early blow in the title race. 

Diego Simeone insists the referee was correct to add on 10 additional minutes in Atletico Madrid's dramatic late win at Espanyol due to the home side's time-wasting.

Atleti were heading for a first defeat of the season after Raul de Tomas gave Espanyol the lead through their first LaLiga goal in nine matches.

But Simeone's decision to make a triple substitution at half-time, before also turning to Joao Felix and Matheus Cunha in the second half, paid off for the reigning champions.

Yannick Carrasco fired in an equaliser in the 79th minute – Atleti's 300th LaLiga goal against Espanyol – and then set up Lemar's winner in the ninth of 10 added-on minutes.

Six substitutions were made in the second half and there was a lengthy VAR check for an earlier disallowed goal for Lemar after Luis Suarez was adjudged to have been offside in the build-up.

Espanyol scorer De Tomas complained about the amount of additional time played, but Simeone believes the hosts were made to pay for deliberately slowing down the game.

"It was a lot of minutes at the end, but I've never seen so much time wasted in a match either," Simeone said at his post-match news conference.

"You should look at what happened during the match."

 

Lemar dropped out of the starting line-up in place of Antoine Griezmann, who was making his second debut for Atleti, but made an impression during his time on the pitch.

Simeone explained after the game that the decision to overlook Lemar for a starting spot was down to fitness reasons following his return from international duty with France.

"Thomas is in a very good moment," Simeone said. "With the national team he had a digestive problem, he lost 3-4 kilos. 

"That is why I had doubts and thought about reserving him instead for Wednesday. I hope he can repeat those scenarios. 

"He was the player we signed from Monaco, the player that the team needs. Verticality he is good, he has a right foot, a left foot, he works had

"He grew a lot last season but lacked goals. Hopefully this season the goals will follow like today."

Atletico's late double came after Griezmann had been substituted off with an hour played following an underwhelming first game back since rejoining from Barcelona.

Griezmann had just four touches in the opposition box and managed only two shots, neither of which were on target, though nobody could match his three big chances created.

Asked what he made of Griezmann's performance, Simeone said: "I saw quite a lot in the first half that was not good from us. Espanyol were better in the first half.

"In the second we changed and looked for other alternatives to what we saw in the first half. The team had an extraordinary second half."

While Atletico have now picked up three wins and a draw from their opening four games, Espanyol remain winless on their return to the top flight.

Despite the controversy surrounding the added time at the end of the game at RCDE Stadium, home boss Vicente Moreno did not feel the need to criticise referee Juan Martinez Munuera.

"I don't think about it. It may seem like more minutes or fewer than expected, but it's down to the referee. Little can change what he saw," Moreno said.

"You rarely see 10 minutes added on in a game, but I am totally respectful. I just hope it's the same when we need a goal.

"As for the other comments made [by Simeone], I am respectful of what everyone says."

Atletico, who had failed to win on their previous three league visits to Espanyol, return to action on Wednesday with a home match against Porto in the Champions League.

Thomas Lemar struck in the 99th minute to complete a dramatic late comeback as Atletico Madrid edged past Espanyol 2-1 at RCDE Stadium on Antoine Griezmann's second debut for the club.

Espanyol had failed to score in their opening three games since returning to the top flight – and a joint-LaLiga record eight matches stretching back into their last campaign at this level – but they took the lead through Raul de Tomas' 40th-minute header.

That was a deserved opener for the hosts in a half they dominated and Diego Simeone responded by making a triple substitution at half-time and changing system.

Simeone's alternations ultimately paid off in an incredible conclusion to Sunday's contest as Lemar – one of those brought on – found a winner deep into added time after Yannick Carrasco had got the champions back on level terms 20 minutes earlier.

Antoine Griezmann was eager to return to Atletico Madrid, according to Diego Simeone, who acknowledged there will be plenty of expectation on the forward.

Griezmann left Atleti for Barcelona in 2019 but, on deadline day, the 30-year-old returned to the Spanish champions on a season-long loan with an option to extend the deal.

With Barca hit by huge financial losses, the Catalan club needed to get Griezmann's wages off their books, even with Lionel Messi having left for Paris Saint-Germain.

Griezmann's departure from Atleti two years ago was by no means a smooth one, with supporters seemingly aggravated by the prolonged nature of the move. In 2018, the former Real Socieded attacker committed his future to the club, only to leave a season later.

However, Simeone insists Griezmann, who scored 94 LaLiga goals for Atleti in his first spell, was determined to return from Barca.

"I found a Griezmann who was eager to return," Simeone said ahead of Sunday's meeting with Espanyol, with Griezmann having been included in Atleti's squad for an immediate return to the city of Barcelona.

"[He was] enthusiastic about the option of returning to the team, and people will demand from Griezmann what they demand from us every day.

"The fans are very demanding and it is normal for them to demand from Griezmann what they demand from us every day."

 

Griezmann has joined a sparkling attack at Atleti, with Luis Suarez, Joao Felix and Angel Correa likely to be competing with the World Cup winner for a place up front. 

"Actually, when you talk about a better or worse squad, short or deep, everything is seen as a consequence of what is going to happen during the season," said Simeone when asked if his team were favourites for the title.

"It is easy to think of the best before the game starts and for there to be some imagination about the names, but the names do not make a team. The men do that.

"So, we will go without changing anything, with the commitment that I have with the club, and tomorrow we will play against a very complex, aggressive opponent who will be tough, like everyone else in the Spanish league.

"We hope to improve compared to what happened last season. We did not have a good Copa del Rey [run], in the Champions League we would have liked to compete better [and] we [also] have the Supercopa de Espana.

"Four competitions where hopefully we can improve the numbers from last season, as we are always looking to do."

Antoine Griezmann will return for Atletico Madrid against Espanyol but head coach Diego Simeone insisted his focus is on the team dynamic and ensuring his talented attacking options click, rather than individuals.

The France forward made a remarkable move back from Barcelona, initially joining the reigning LaLiga champions on loan with either club holding the option to extend for a further year.

Griezmann scored 133 goals across 257 games in his first spell before that ultimately ill-fated €120million move to the Catalan giants in 2019, and Simeone revealed his new loanee is relishing a homecoming.

"I found [Antoine] Griezmann eager to return to Atletico Madrid, very enthusiastic about the situation of returning to the team," Simeone told reporters on Saturday.

However, the 51-year-old head coach wanted to avoid focusing on individuals as Atletico look to end a three-game winless away run at Espanyol in LaLiga.

 

Luis Suarez, who has been involved in 15 goals in 11 top-flight appearances against Sunday's opponents, could link up with his former Barca colleague Griezmann again, though the France star will face a fight for a place in the side given Atletico now boast a wealth of attacking talent among their ranks.

Angel Correa has thrived as a support striker, scoring three times in the first two LaLiga games, as Atletico opened with back-to-back wins for the fourth time in the Simeone era.

Versatile attacker Matheus Cunha then arrived from Hertha Berlin for a reported €26m fee late in the transfer window.

The Brazil forward created 54 chances – ranking him sixth among forwards in Germany – last season, while only five forwards across the top five European leagues completed more dribbles than Cunha's 123 since his arrival in Berlin back in January 2020.

Yannick Carrasco was the only Atletico player to complete 100 dribbles in that time and the Belgian winger – often used as a wing-back last term – led club charts for chances created (47) in LaLiga in 2020-21.

Add the likes of Joao Felix, Thomas Lemar, Marcos Llorente and Rodrigo De Paul to the equation and Simeone has a wealth of creative talents to call on. Now he can look to Griezmann as well.

Although his Barcelona spell may not have lived up to expectations, he still netted 20 times across 51 appearances in all competitions last season, providing 12 assists and creating 67 chances for Ronald Koeman's side. That was two more than he managed in 2017-18, arguably the finest individual campaign of Griezmann's career.

But Simeone is not kidding himself. While he has great talent at his disposal, he needs them to click.

"Internal competition has grown and that leads us to compete better," Simeone continued.

"At first it is easy to speak from the names. I believe in men and in how a team is executed. We are absolutely always looking for a team.

"Names don't team up, men do. We will go in that search of that commitment we have towards the club, always looking for the best."

LaLiga is arguably harder to call than ever before heading into 2021-22 – Barcelona no longer have Lionel Messi to guide the way and Real Madrid have seen significant upheaval, so surely the smart money is on defending champions Atletico Madrid?

Diego Simeone's men won the title in 2020-21 after watching Barca and Madrid trade success for seven years and look in good shape given they've not lost any major players. But can you really write off the 'big two'?

Well, you shouldn't, according to Stats Perform predictions.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Without further ado, let's look at what could occur over the 2021-22 LaLiga season.

 

ANCELOTTI DELIVERS THE GOODS

Carlo Ancelotti's back at the Santiago Bernabeu, and so – it seems – will the Spanish title. The Stats Perform model calculates Madrid have a 42.3 per cent chance of taking the crown back from their local rivals.

In fact, if the model proves accurate, Atletico may not even finish in the top two, as their 18.7 per cent chance is a fair bit smaller than Barca's 30.4 per cent likelihood of winning LaLiga.

However, it's worth pointing out that, because the model is based on historical data points and results, the Barcelona that appears here is one that has had Messi in the team for past 17 years.

It's entirely reasonable to expect Barca to see a significant drop-off given they'll no longer have the greatest player of all time on their books – as such, a 30.4 per cent chance of winning the title might actually be quite generous.

THE BIG FOUR?

The 2020-21 season was the tightest LaLiga title fight in recent memory. Although Atletico were 11 points clear at one point, with five matches left there were just three points separating first from fourth.

In that respect, it was the closest title race LaLiga had ever seen in a 20-team campaign (1987-1995, 1997-present) and the least predictable since 2006-07, when Madrid, Barca and Sevilla could all win the league on the final day of the season.

Sevilla's challenge ultimately faded before that stage in 2020-21 but they've managed to keep Julen Lopetegui, their coach, and their squad is largely unaltered for the time being.

The prediction model makes them fourth favourites for the title (6.8 per cent) and far better placed to take the final Champions League spot (69.4 per cent) for the third year in a row than their likeliest challengers Villarreal (36.2 per cent).

There was a 15-point gap between fourth and fifth last season – this is the closest to a 'big four' Spain has had in years.

 

FOUR TIPPED FOR RELEGATION TUSSLE

Rayo Vallecano, Real Mallorca and Espanyol were the three to come up from the Segunda last season. While most people would ordinarily point to the promoted sides as the most likely to be relegated, the prediction model disagrees.

It gives Mallorca a 30.7 per cent likelihood of going straight back down, and Espanyol are at 17.6 per cent – neither of those are among the bottom three, though Rayo (45.9 per cent) are seen as the second favourites to head back to the second tier.

But it's Elche (57.9 per cent) who are the clear front-runners in this regard, and then it looks agonisingly close for the third and final relegation spot.

According to the predictor, it's likely to be neck-and-neck between Deportivo Alaves (41.1 per cent) and Cadiz (41.9 per cent).

When Javi Lopez sat down to speak to Stats Perform News, Adelaide United's star recruit could not hide his smile as the interview shifted to a familiar face – Mauricio Pochettino.

Pochettino was the man who gave Lopez his senior debut with Espanyol in 2009.

Lopez never looked back as he went on to captain Espanyol and, until 2020, spent his entire senior career with the Periquitos before their shock relegation from LaLiga last season.

As Lopez settles in Australia and Pochettino takes charge of Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain, the impact of the former Espanyol head coach is not lost on the versatile 34-year-old.

"What can I tell you about my experience with Mauricio Pochettino? He was the coach that made me debut in the first division, thanks to him afterwards I could have a great career in Espanyol for 11 years. I am thankful and I only have good words for him," Lopez told Stats Perform News.

"His evolution hasn't surprised me because I could see that he was going to be a top coach because his way of coaching, because he surrounded himself with great staff. He has no limits, he will coach the best teams in the world for sure."

Like former Espanyol team-mate and skipper Victor Sanchez – who is now playing for A-League outfit Western United – Lopez finds himself playing out of Europe for the first time and in Australia.

Adelaide have a rich history with Spaniards – Barcelona legend Guillermo Amor led a Reds team boasting countrymen Isaias, Pablo Sanchez and Sergio Cirio to the club's first A-League championship almost five years ago.

Lopez is the latest Spaniard to call Adelaide home, thanks to some help from ex-Reds captain Isaias.

"After many years of my career, I wanted to change, a big one. When the opportunity of coming here aroused I talked to Isaias, with Juande, who was playing for Perth Glory and is a great friend of mine," Lopez said. "I talked to my family and we decided to come here."

"I think that the A-League is a very strong league physically, quite unknown in Spain but people would be surprised of its great level, the matches are very entertaining, dynamic, physical," he continued. "From what I could see here, the club and the coach [Carl Veart] are doing a great job, the team is very good."

While Adelaide have won back-to-back FFA Cup titles, the club have fallen short in the A-League since reigning supreme in 2016.

Adelaide missed out on the finals last season, and that is something Lopez wants to change in 2020-21 – the veteran buoyed by four points from two games to start to the coronavirus-interrupted campaign.

"Expectations are clear: to be in the top six, to play play-offs and to finish as high as possible. Why not? I have said that before, the team is very well compensated and very competitive," Lopez said. "On the first match of the league against Western United I could confirm how well we work together thanks to the job of the coach.

"I loved the team's proposal, how they played, the intensity, how they fought for every ball, the pressure after losing the ball, I really liked it. Like [Atletico Madrid head coach] Diego Simeone says, his now worldwide famous sentence: 'We need to go match by match'. But the expectations are to finish in the top six, probably something difficult because in football all teams compete. If we keep performing at the previous level I think that is possible."

Lopez brings a wealth of experience to Adelaide – he ranks third for most Espanyol appearances across all competitions, only behind Raul Tamudo and Pochettino following 11 years at RCDE Stadium.

Wearing the captain's armband, Lopez featured in 17 LaLiga matches in 2019-20 as Espanyol were painfully condemned to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993-94.

"To talk about Espanyol makes me feel emotional, they are an historic club of LaLiga," Lopez said. "I might sound too romantic, but for me Espanyol is everything: my club, my house… I was there 13 years. I gained a feeling that will remain with me forever. If I say it is an honour I might be short, if I say that I am proud I might be short.

"It was a dream to play for Espanyol and to be able to take the captain's armband during many years. Even if I say that it was a dream, I am being short in the description, it has been more than a dream. I had to work really hard to reach that point. I always gave my best, my conscious is very peaceful on this regard. I cannot tell much more, except for that I would love that we would return to the first division at the end of this season."

Lopez also experienced the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Lionel Messi's Barcelona – and he added: "Sincerely it was one of the games that we wait with hunger. For all of us it was our game, we lived in a city where there is much difference in term of repercussion and media. Barcelona always gathers much more attention than Espanyol, so it was always a chance to reclaim ourselves as a great club.

"We are weapons, with our feelings to our colours, which allow us to compete with anyone. It's true that in the last decade there were very unbalanced derbies because of their great team, but still it was our chance to reclaim how proud we feel about us, our unique feeling. Our pride to be 'Pericos'." 

Liverpool are reportedly interested in Sergio Ramos, while Real Madrid have a successor for Zinedine Zidane lined up.

Premier League champions Liverpool are linked with centre-backs due to long-term injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.

And Ramos is apparently a target.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL INTERESTED IN RAMOS

Liverpool are interested in Real Madrid defender Ramos, according to El Chiringuito.

The 34-year-old's future at Madrid is uncertain with his contract expiring at the end of the season.

Also at Liverpool, Fabrizio Romano reports they are yet to open talks to sign Lille defender Sven Botman.

 

ROUND-UP

- Zidane was under pressure at Real Madrid earlier in the season, and the LaLiga giants have his replacement in mind. AS reports Raul – who is in charge of Real Madrid Castilla – is seen as the natural heir to the Frenchman.

Christian Eriksen is expected to leave Inter, but just where to remains to be seen. CalcioMercato reports the Serie A giants are yet to receive an offer for the midfielder, who has been linked to Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal.

- With Diego Costa having departed, Atletico Madrid are said to be looking for another forward. The Daily Mail reports Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik is at the top of their list, while Espanyol's Raul de Tomas and Real Betis' Loren Moron are of interest.

Manchester City are linked to Barcelona star Lionel Messi, but they may have a younger version to target. talkSPORT reports the Premier League club are plotting a move for 17-year-old Estudiantes winger Dario Sarmiento, who has been dubbed "mini Messi".

- Sergio Romero looks set to leave Manchester United. The Manchester Evening News reports the goalkeeper has bid farewell to his team-mates ahead of an expected move to Boca Juniors.

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