Lionel Messi equalled Barcelona's all-time LaLiga appearances record set by Xavi by starting Saturday's clash with Deportivo Alaves.

It was thought Ronald Koeman might opt to leave Messi out given the importance of Tuesday's Champions League round-of-16 first-leg game against Paris Saint-Germain.

However, given the depleted nature of the Barca squad at the moment, Koeman made the decision to include his captain from the start.

It was Messi's 505th LaLiga appearance for Barca, tying the haul managed by club great Xavi, and the Argentinian could surpass his former team-mate next week at home to Cadiz.

Diego Simeone praised the development of Marcos Llorente after the midfielder helped Atletico Madrid secure a 2-1 victory over Granada. 

Atleti extended their lead at the top of LaLiga to eight points thanks to Angel Correa's deflected winner on Saturday. 

Llorente provided the assist for Correa having opened the scoring himself with a neat finish in the 63rd minute, taking his tally of league goals for the season to seven. 

The 26-year-old – signed primarily to play as a defensive midfielder in 2019 from rivals Real Madrid – scored his first goal for Atleti in a 2-2 draw with Valencia on February 14 last year. 

He has now netted 13 times in all competitions in total for the club, while his tally of 10 league goals since getting off the mark puts him behind only Luis Suarez (16) for Simeone's squad. 

Llorente has averaged a goal every 237 minutes in LaLiga over the last 12 months, as well as providing 10 assists and creating 35 chances. Only Koke, who moved level with Tomas Renones for second place on the list for appearances in all competitions for Atletico, has created more (41).

With his opener against Granada, Llorente became the midfielder in LaLiga with the most direct goal involvements so far this season, so it was hardly surprising when Simeone spoke glowingly of the Spain international's desire to transform himself into an all-round attacking threat. 

"As coaches, titles are wonderful, because they fill you with excitement and glory," Simeone told a news conference. 

"But when you work with a footballer and see his growth reflected, you feel more joy and more enthusiasm to continue advancing in this profession.  

"When we see a footballer with the ability to do different things than what he had been doing in his career, we jump into it. It happened to us with Griezmann, with Saul, with Juanfran. 

"Why is it happening? I would like to look for the images of Marcos training when he was not even playing, when in practice he scored a lot of goals, we joked that he was going to have to play higher [up the pitch]. 

"We put him up front and now I think in the middle is where feels more at ease." 

While Llorente delivered the goods on Saturday, LaLiga's leading scorer Suarez had an off day in front of goal, landing only one of his four attempts on target, though he was unfortunate to hit the crossbar in the second half. 

"We always ask all the boys who have played as strikers in our team for collaboration and effort for the team," Simeone said. 

"Luis, beyond what he generates with his goals, has a lot of intelligence. He knows where to apply pressure, where to bother the rival, generate doubts and we need everyone."

Atletico Madrid got their LaLiga title tilt back on track as Angel Correa's fortunate goal secured a hard-fought 2-1 win over Granada.

Diego Simeone's team saw an eight-match winning streak in the league come to an end when they were pegged back by Celta Vigo on Monday.

Real Madrid and Barcelona looked to be getting another favour when Granada substitute Yangel Herrera cancelled out Marcos Llorente's 63rd-minute opener on Saturday.

The unusually profligate Luis Suarez had gone close to breaking the deadlock numerous times, hitting the crossbar and finding Rui Silva in fine form, but a fifth successive away win seemed set to evade Atleti.

However, a huge slice of luck went Atleti's way when Correa's strike deflected in off Jesus Vallejo to settle the contest and move the visitors eight points clear.

Correa let Granada off the hook when he poked a one-v-one straight at Silva, before German Sanchez headed Granada's first opportunity wide.

Geoffrey Kondogbia's surging run resulted in an opening for Suarez three minutes later, but LaLiga's leading scorer could not generate enough curl to pick out the far corner.

Kondogbia and Suarez combined again 30 minutes in, yet Silva was equal to the latter's powerful effort, with Granada's goalkeeper denying Atleti's number nine again soon after.

Suarez went closer after the restart – a half-volley clipping away off the bar.

Another opportunity fell Suarez's way before the hour, but the former Barca star could not take the ball under control in the six-yard box.

Llorente finally found the opener when he drilled in from the edge of the box for his seventh league goal of 2020-21, but despite creating little of note, Granada snatched a swift equaliser three minutes later as Atleti failed to clear a corner and Herrera's effort deflected beyond Jan Oblak.

Yet Atleti had a deflection go in their favour 16 minutes from time, Silva helpless to prevent Correa's shot from looping in after Vallejo's attempted block.

Zinedine Zidane says coaching France remains a career goal of his but remains confident Real Madrid can achieve "great things" this season.

The Madrid boss has seen his position come under scrutiny this season after some high-profile defeats, but he thinks success in LaLiga and the Champions League remains possible.

Zidane has regularly been linked with managing his native France, with incumbent head coach Didier Deschamps recently tipping him to succeed him in the role.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet, meanwhile, has said Zidane would be the first person he would call should he ever need to replace Deschamps.

Ahead of Madrid's home match with Valencia on Sunday, Zidane was open about his aspirations.

"I am passionate about football and you never know about the future," he said.

"My relationship with Mr Le Graet is long, since 1998.

"The national team is a goal, like I said when I started coaching 10 years ago, but now I'm here.

"We will see. My mind is here. I am at Madrid and I enjoy every day."

Zidane added: "We know the pressure that comes with representing Real Madrid. We do our own thing, what we can control.

"We know we can achieve great things and we are going to put all our energy into these two [remaining] competitions."

Madrid are eyeing a fourth win in five matches when they host mid-table Valencia.

But after winning the reverse fixture 4-1, Valencia are looking to complete a league double over Madrid for the first time since 1967-68 season.

To do that, they will need to end a long streak.

Madrid have avoided defeat in their past 12 home LaLiga games against Valencia (seven wins and five draws) since a 3-2 loss in March 2008, and they have scored at least two goals in nine of them.

Real Madrid are considering a move for Kalidou Koulibaly, while Manchester United are targeting Jadon Sancho in a cut-price deal.

Amid uncertainty over Sergio Ramos' future at Madrid, the LaLiga giants continue to be linked with centre-backs.

They seemingly have plenty of options – and Napoli star Koulibaly is among them.

 

TOP STORY – REAL MADRID LIKE KOULIBALY

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane likes Napoli defender Koulibaly, according to AS.

The report says Bayern Munich star David Alaba, who is out of contract at the end of the season, is still Madrid's first option.

With Ramos potentially leaving when his contract expires at campaign's end, AS also says Villarreal defender Pau Torres and Sevilla's Jules Kounde will be expensive.

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United opted not to sign Borussia Dortmund star Sancho ahead of 2020-21, and it could pay off. Eurosport reports United could land Sancho for just £50million (€57.1m) in the next transfer window. The Bundesliga club were demanding about £100m (€120m) for Sancho last year.

- Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Florian Neuhaus is seemingly attracting plenty of interest. Kicker reports Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, Manchester City and Juventus are interested in the three-time Germany international.

- Arsenal look set to strengthen ahead of next season. The Sun reports they are close to finalising a deal for 18-year-old Sporting CP forward Tiago Tomas for £20m (€22.8m).

- On loan at Real Betis from Barcelona, Emerson may not return to Camp Nou. CalcioMercato reports Milan are considering a move for the right-back.

- Former Milan and Chelsea forward Alexandre Pato will join Orlando City on a one-year deal, according to Fabrizio Romano and The Mane Land. Pato has been without a club since leaving Sao Paulo in August last year.

Diego Simeone insisted he had "no problem" with Atletico Madrid's Champions League home clash against Chelsea being moved to Bucharest.

The first leg of the last-16 tie will be played at the Arena Nationala on February 23 due to coronavirus restrictions.

Atletico coach Simeone had no complaints, saying his team were prepared to play anywhere.

"I don't think it's important to give an opinion because the opinion we might say won't influence on what the reality is. And because we are living a complex moment globally, from a social point of view, it is already difficult to compete and do our job," he told a news conference.

"We will prepare and enjoy what we have. To play anywhere, any time, the day they want.

"There is no problem."

Atletico are five points clear atop LaLiga and have played two fewer games than second-placed rivals Real Madrid.

They are unbeaten in their past 20 LaLiga games (15 wins and five draws) against Granada, who they visit on Saturday.

Simeone has managed 14 LaLiga games against Granada without defeat. Only against Getafe (16) has he managed more in the competition without defeat.

But Simeone is wary of Granada, who are eighth in the table and have lost just two of their 11 LaLiga home games this season.

"We play against Granada and the only thing that keep us busy is to resolve this match. Granada is a team that does very well at their stadium," he said.

"They compete really well as everyone could see in the Copa del Rey and Europa League. It's a combative team and their coach has his ideas very clear. He can play with different systems. That is what keep us busy today."

Barcelona signing Sergio Aguero could help convince Lionel Messi to stay, according to Juli Lopez, who is involved with Victor Font's candidacy to be the club's next president.  

Messi's future beyond this season remains uncertain as he comes towards the end of his contract. The 33-year-old made clear his desire to leave prior to the 2020-21 campaign but ended up remaining at Camp Nou to see out his deal.  

Paris Saint-Germain have been strongly linked with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner, while Manchester City were reportedly interested in reuniting the Argentinian with his former Barca boss Pep Guardiola in England.  

However, Lopez – who will oversee the sporting department if Font wins the election – feels a familiar face arriving from City could help make all the difference for Messi.  

Asked in an interview with Marca if bringing in Aguero would help Messi decide to remain in Spain, he replied: "Absolutely.  

"Barcelona need another goalscorer. Aguero wouldn't be signed just so Messi stays. We're talking about a top striker who wants to be playing top-level European football up to the World Cup in Qatar.  

"He would bring a huge lift to the club and would play a huge role at Barcelona."

Like Messi, Aguero's deal with his current team is into the final few months.  

The striker is City's all-time leading scorer but has barely featured this season due to injuries and illness, making just nine appearances in all competitions. After hamstring and knee issues earlier in the campaign, he tested positive for coronavirus in January.  

Lopez also discussed the potential return of a Barcelona legend in Xavi – who is the head coach at Al Sadd in Qatar – as another move that may convince Messi, as the talismanic forward would be able to see there is a clear plan mapped out for the future.

"The first thing is to make sure he can see that this team in the medium and long term will play in the way that he likes," Lopez said.  

"Someone who he trusts will need to tell him this. Who better to explain the project than his former team-mate Xavi?  

"A good project and someone he can trust are the two key ingredients to keep him at the club."

Ronald Koeman insists the match in LaLiga between Barcelona and Deportivo Alaves is more important to him than discussing Paris Saint-Germain or Neymar.

A huge Champions League last-16 tie between Barca and PSG begins at Camp Nou on Tuesday and Neymar has been ruled out against his former club through injury.

But Barca boss Koeman stressed the home Alaves match on Saturday was most important to him because it is what comes next.

He also suggested he was considering squad rotation but would not make significant changes prior to the PSG game because he lacks options.

Barca lost 2-0 to Sevilla last time out on Wednesday in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final tie. It was their first defeat inside 90 minutes in 17 matches across all competitions.

But they have won seven and drawn one of their last eight LaLiga games with Alaves.

"I don't think Neymar is an Alaves player," Koeman said when asked about the injury to the PSG forward.

"This is a question for Monday, not for today. I'm not talking about Neymar, I'm not talking about PSG.

"Saturday's game is more important than Tuesday's. We are going game by game and we want to continue our good streak.

"The result of the Sevilla game is there but we played a very good game. If we repeat the game, we do not lose.

"We dominated in many areas against Sevilla, but you also have to have a bit of luck. We need freshness, but the team is feeling very well.

"You don't play a second half like we did in Seville if the team is not physically well."

Defenders Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo are unlikely to be risked against Alaves.

Koeman added: "Sergino Dest, Miralem Pjanic and Martin Braithwaite have done something [in training on Friday].

"[On Saturday] there is training and we will decide if they are on the squad list.

"For Araujo or Pique, I always believe in the margin of a risk. The objective is to recover players until the end of the season.

"If it is the last game of the season, you can risk more, but I am not in favour of risking a lot for a game.

"Those players have to recover well and step by step. If they are there and they can play, even better."

On the prospect of rotation, he continued: "Of course there are players who have been playing for many minutes with us not having everyone available.

"You have to think about giving rest to those players to be well in the next game. [But] not many [will be rotated], because there is not much we can change either.

"We look at the players, we train and we will decide. By winning the game, you are always mentally less tired than when you don't win.

"The goal is to win. But first you have to play and it will be difficult."

The Alaves match will start a run of four consecutive home games and Koeman added: "It's good to have back-to-back games at home because you save yourself traveling.

"We can rest more now and hopefully we will get players back to start having a very competitive squad again.

"It is good to see the youth team players and the youngsters play, but we need our more competitive players back."

Lionel Messi has scored 10 goals against Alaves in LaLiga in as many appearances against them, including four in his last three.

If he plays against Alaves, he will equal the record held by Xavi for most Barca league appearances by playing in his 504th top-flight match.

The race for Premier League glory may have tipped in Manchester City's favour but Liverpool are hoping to beat their title rivals in the race for a new star midfielder.

Germany international Florian Neuhaus is the player in demand and his club Borussia Monchengladbach may not be able to hold on to one of Europe's brightest talents.

The 23-year-old is being closely monitored by five major Champions League clubs and there is set to be a battle for his signature in the off-season.


TOP STORY – GERMANY ACE NEUHAUS WANTED BY CITY AND LIVERPOOL

It is understood that Neuhaus has a €40million (£35m) release clause in his contract with Gladbach, according to German media outlet Kicker.

That means Neuhaus will have the pick of his suitors, believed to be City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Italian champions Juventus.

He has already clocked up 81 appearances in the Bundesliga and the Reds see him as a potential replacement for the outgoing Georginio Wijnaldum.

Athletic Bilbao head coach Marcelino acknowledged his players suffered from nerves during their Copa del Rey semi-final against Levante.

Marcelino's side needed an Inigo Martinez equaliser at San Mames after Gonzalo Melero had given Levante the lead as the first leg of the tie finished 1-1 on Thursday.

Athletic were the stronger of the two sides after the break following a timid first-half showing but were unable to find a winner.

The second leg will be played at Levante's Estadio Ciudad de Valencia on March 4, with the winners set to face either Sevilla or Barcelona in the final on April 17.

Athletic still have last season's delayed Copa final against rivals Real Sociedad to play on April 4 and their chance to complete the unprecedented feat of winning the trophy twice in the same month remains a possibility.

They have progressed in nine consecutive knockout rounds in the Copa del Rey - their best run since 11 in a row between 1983 and 1985 (including finals) - but Marcelino said his players must be better in the second leg.

"It may have been anxiety," Marcelino told a post-match press conference.

"We were not comfortable in any facet of the game. We missed simple passes and we were not mobile. 

"In the first half, most of the players were below their level. Then the idea of the game changed and we found ourselves again with what we like.

"It is clear that to be in a final we have to play as in the second half. We must demand more of ourselves.

"Approaching that level of play we can be in the final, but it is clear that we will not be able to drop a level even a minute in Valencia."

Levante boss Paco Lopez insisted his players must forget the second leg, and the prospect of reaching the Copa del Rey final for the first time in their history, and instead focus on LaLiga for the time being.

"We understand that people are waiting for this game but not for us now. There are three weeks in between," he added.

"What we have in the league is the most important thing now and we must put the focus there.

"On March 4 it will come and before we have several games and we are going to have to demand it from ourselves."

Athletic Bilbao's Copa del Rey semi-final against Levante is finely poised after a 1-1 draw in the first leg at San Mames

Gonzalo Melero netted the opener midway through the first half when he swept in from inside the penalty area following some haphazard Athletic defending.

But Athletic, who are still to play the 2019-20 Copa final, got themselves back on level terms just before the hour as Inigo Martinez climbed highest inside the box to head home from a corner.

The match remained all square and the second leg - at Levante's Ciudad de Valencia on March 4 - must now produce a victor to advance and face either Sevilla or Barcelona in the April final.

Melero broke the deadlock following a cagey start when he received the ball from Jorge de Frutos near the penalty spot and slotted into the net.

Inaki Williams almost equalised two minutes later with Athletic's first chance, but his long-range effort was kept out by Daniel Cardenas, before he squandered the hosts' best opportunity of the first half with a header from Iker Muniain's corner.

Levante were indebted to goalkeeper Cardenas as Athletic applied pressure straight after the break, first saving Raul Garcia's diving header and then keeping out a low shot from Williams.

But Athletic deserved their equaliser as Muniain's outswinging delivery was met by Martinez, who escaped his marker and powerfully headed beyond Cardenas.

Only a superb block by Oscar Duarte denied Alex Berenguer and there was a final chance as another Muniain corner caused panic in the Levante box in the fourth minute of injury time, but Yeray Alvarez could not generate sufficient power with his header and Cardenas gathered.

Athletic Bilbao's Copa del Rey semi-final against Levante is finely poised after a 1-1 draw in the first leg at San Mames

Gonzalo Melero netted the opener midway through the first half when he swept in from inside the penalty area following some haphazard Athletic defending.

But Athletic, who are still to play the 2019-20 Copa final, got themselves back on level terms just before the hour as Inigo Martinez climbed highest inside the box to head home from a corner.

The match remained all square and the second leg - at Levante's Ciudad de Valencia on March 4 - must now produce a victor to advance and face either Sevilla or Barcelona in the April final.

Manchester United are considering putting together a blockbuster deal to sign Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos.

Ramos is in his 16th season with LaLiga champions Madrid but the upcoming free agent has reportedly rejected a two-year contract extension to stay in the Spanish capital.

The 13-time European champions are not expected to go back to the 34-year-old with an improved offer, leaving the door open for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side to swoop.


TOP STORY – UNITED TO DECIDE ON RAMOS

Manchester United will decide in the coming months whether or not to lure the 178-cap Spain international to Old Trafford, according to Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano.

Ramos' contract expires in June 2021 and the Red Devils are yet to make an approach, although Champions League rivals Paris Saint-Germain are said to be interested.

Mauricio Pochettino's PSG will only pursue Ramos if he is available on a free transfer. That will remain the case unless Madrid make a late move to keep the club icon at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Real Madrid great Enrique Perez Diaz, better known as Pachin, has died at the age of 82.

The Spanish giants confirmed the news of the former defender's passing on Wednesday.

Pachin made 218 appearances for Madrid between 1959 and 1968 and was part of one of the club's most successful periods.

He won two European Cups, one Intercontinental Cup, seven LaLiga titles and one Spanish Super Cup across his nine years at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid paid tribute to the eight-cap Spain international on their official website.

A statement read: "Real Madrid would like to express its condolences and its warmth and sympathy to his wife Mercedes, his daughters Cristina and Mercedes, his grandchildren Javier and Cristina and all his relatives and loved ones.

"Real Madrid, the club to which he was associated with throughout his life, extends its condolences to all of Madridismo."

Pachin also represented Gimnastica, Burgos, Osasuna, Real Betis and Toluca during his playing days, before a lengthy coaching career that saw him manage 12 different teams, including Madrid's youth side.

Julen Lopetegui wasn't instantly won over by Jules Kounde following his 2019 arrival at Sevilla from Bordeaux, unlikely as that seems currently.

He had only made four LaLiga starts by the end of October in his first season, and although that was followed by a more prolonged run in the team, a rocky performance against Osasuna in December saw him back on the bench.

As it was, Osasuna weren't able to punish Kounde's struggles on that occasion – the closest they came was hitting the post after his misjudgement of a bouncing ball led to a clear opportunity.

He was withdrawn soon after and only made another two league starts – a defeat at Real Madrid and underwhelming 1-1 home draw with Deportivo Alaves – before the start of February.

Indeed, it arguably wasn't until LaLiga's resumption after the coronavirus lockdown that Kounde truly nailed down a place and found genuine consistency in his performances, but now he is probably the first name on the team sheet.

Sevilla's 'selling club' business model is no secret, and by that logic it is unlikely that Kounde will remain at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan long-term – after all, Manchester City were keen in pre-season.

In years gone by Barcelona would've been not only a likely destination for him such has been their affinity for Sevilla-developed talent, it would have also been a stylistically ideal place for him to play. But ahead of the two teams' Copa del Rey semi-final tie, the archetypal Barca defender appears to be well out of their reach financially.

The 'false right-back'

In 2006, two years before he came Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola wrote a column for El Pais in which he discussed what has become known as the 'Lavolpiana build-up', a defensive setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward.

While La Volpe's Mexico side used a back three, the key ball-playing and forward-thinking elements of this system are still evident in the four-man defensive structure at Guardiola's City now – it is also identifiable in Lopetegui's Sevilla.

Kounde is a massive part of that, with the young Frenchman a fine player technically, both on the ball and when distributing.

The attack-minded nature of Sevilla right-back Jesus Navas leaves a lot of space for Kounde to operate in, and he often helps create overloads on the right flank – his positional map shows how he essentially works as a secondary right-back when in possession, while Fernando drops back into central defence to form a back three.

 

The recent 3-0 win over Getafe show this perfectly, with Kounde almost spending as much time in the attacking half as he did his own.

While the 'Lavolpiana build up' is a risky strategy, the right players can ensure it brings greater incisiveness particularly when playing through a press, and Sevilla have clearly adapted well – they are one of just two teams to not concede a goal as a result of a high turnover this term.

At no point this season has Sevilla's ability to play through the press been more prevalent than when remarkably stringing together 37 passes leading up to Luuk de Jong's second goal in the 3-0 Copa win over Valencia last month. Kounde more than played his role in that.

 

The defensive playmaker

This setup suits Kounde down to the ground. It's no wonder City were interested in him before going for Ruben Dias, and by extension he would clearly suit the ethos cultivated at Barcelona.

In 2019-20, Kounde showed glimpses of his undoubted ability but it was his partner Diego Carlos who arguably attracted more acclaim.

But this season, building on his positive development post-lockdown last term, Kounde has stepped things up a notch and seemingly relished that forward-thinking ball-playing role.

That is most notable with respect to how often he has carried the ball – his 331 carries (defined as a movement of five metres or more in possession of the ball) is bettered by only six players in LaLiga this term, three of whom are Frenkie de Jong, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric.

Of those 331 carries, 205 have been progressive, so moving Sevilla up the pitch. This gives him another very high ranking, with Pau Torres (321), De Jong (288), Messi (252) and Raul Albiol (246) the four individuals to boast more.

 

Kounde ranks in the top 10 for several other carry-related metrics – last season he did not. In fact, his 338 carries in 2019-20 is only seven more than he has in 2020-21, which in itself highlights his development.

But his forward runs in possession aren't Kounde's only way of getting on the front foot. His passing is also very positive.

Possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs given many of the passes they make are simple short balls to their defensive colleagues, but Kounde is often looking ahead.

His 387 successful forward passes is more than anyone else in LaLiga, while his 486 attempted forward balls is second only to Torres (502), who has played 360 minutes more than Kounde.

The Sevilla talent's 79.6 per cent completion rate from such passes is also better than Torres' 74.5 per cent.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he has developed into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who wouldn't have looked out of place in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

While Sevilla and Lopetegui remain the perfect fit for Kounde, it is surely only a matter of time before his €80million release clause no longer appears a daunting figure for certain clubs – though Barca's perilous financial position means they won't be in the hunt.

He's come a long way from that shaky night in Pamplona.

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