Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino heaped praise on Kylian Mbappe amid doubts over his future with the Ligue 1 champions, though he was reluctant to discuss Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.

Mbappe has been tipped to join LaLiga champions Real Madrid, but PSG remain committed to trying to re-sign the star forward – who is out of contract in 2022.

The 22-year-old has gone four matches without a goal, while he has managed just two goals in his last eight appearances for league leaders PSG.

Pochettino was asked about the possible renewal of World Cup winner Mbappe, who has scored 12 goals in 16 Ligue 1 appearances this term and 14 across all competitions.

"The club are working on retaining the best and he has a huge future ahead of him," Pochettino – who was absent from the win over Angers due to coronavirus – told Cadena SER's El Larguero programme. 

"What coach wouldn't want to work with Mbappe?".

Asked about Mbappe and Neymar after replacing Thomas Tuchel at the start of January, former Tottenham boss Pochettino added: "They've both welcomed me and are open to a new footballing proposition and I can only thank them for the warm reception."

Barca captain Messi has been heavily linked with a move to PSG as he prepares to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Messi has entered the final six months of his contract at Camp Nou and PSG sporting director Leonardo admitted the club are keeping a close eye on the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

Premier League giants Manchester City have also emerged as a destination for Messi, while Serie A side Inter are believed to be interested.

But Pochettino refused to give much away when quizzed on Messi, saying: "To be honest, I haven't had time to sit with the president and talk about the transfer market as we're just focused on the present. So many times, a throwaway phrase can be twisted and used out of context."

When it was put to him that PSG are monitoring Messi, Pochettino replied: "No comment. When I was at Espanyol or Southampton, my dream was to have the best players at the club and Messi came close to being loaned out to Espanyol… The deal was well advanced but he delivered a great display in pre-season and that was the end of that.

"We've met over the years in places such as London or in Italy. We both share the love for Newell's, as we both came through their academy and that is our common bond."

"I'm aware of all that is going on. I've been watching everyone from West Ham to Valladolid and these days you need to keep your eyes on every team," Pochettino added ahead of PSG's clash with Montpellier on Friday. "I really don't want to talk about Messi as everything then gets blown out of proportion."

Lionel Messi is free to negotiate a move to clubs outside LaLiga and Juan Sebastian Veron thinks Javier Zanetti will be key to Inter's hopes of signing the Barcelona superstar.

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi is in the final six months of his contract at Camp Nou, having failed to engineer a move away during the close season.

The 33-year-old has long been linked with a switch to Serie A giants Inter, where his former Argentina team-mate Zanetti – the Albiceleste's most-capped player of all time – is vice-president.

Former Nerazzurri and Argentina midfielder Veron does not expect Messi to be at Inter next season, but believes it will be down to Zanetti if he does complete a move to San Siro.

"I don't think he can go to Italy. If he will, it is because of Javier Zanetti, who knows him and will try to talk to him, making him feel important again and to explaining the future projects of the club," Veron told Stats Perform News.

"At the end of the day it is purely Messi's decision. But if Inter want to make an attempt, they have to use seduction and get to his heart to draw him near. 

"I don't know how many more years Messi wants to play at this level, but if you want to sign him, Inter have to make Messi their flagship and make clear they want to be at the top level."

After a 2-0 victory over Juventus on Sunday, Inter sit second in Serie A three points behind leaders Milan.

Antonio Conte's side have not been lacking in attack this term, though, with Romelu Lukaku (12 goals, three assists) and Lautaro Martinez (nine goals, three assists) developing a potent partnership in the league.

No forward in Serie A to have played at least 10 games this season has had more Opta-defined 'big chances' than Lukaku, whose tally of 20 is only matched by Edin Dzeko and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Belgium international has the best conversion rate of the trio, scoring from 12 such openings for a 60 per cent success ratio. Ronaldo is second on 55 per cent, while Dzeko is third on 35 per cent.

Messi has scored 11 goals and assisted two more in LaLiga this term, while converting 58.3 per cent (seven out of 12) of his big chances.

The Barca captain's 35 key passes are only bettered by Iago Aspas (37), and his 100 attempts on goal in the Spanish top flight this season are almost twice as many as Karim Benzema (51) in second.

Lionel Messi's two-match ban is to be appealed by Barcelona, the club confirmed.

Messi was dismissed in the 121st minute of Sunday's Supercopa de Espana defeat to Athletic Bilbao as he took a swing at Asier Villalibre in an off-the-ball incident that was spotted by the VAR.

It was the first time he had been sent off for the club and only the third red in his entire 17-year career for Barca and Argentina.

Barca lost the match 3-2 in Seville and a ruling by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) competition committee on Tuesday deemed Messi's offence serious enough to warrant a two-match suspension.

That will rule him out of the Copa del Rey match against Cornella on Thursday and Sunday's LaLiga trip to Elche, before returning for another tussle with Villalibre and Athletic on January 31.

But Barca seemingly deemed the punishment too sever and announced plans to appeal soon after the RFEF's initial decision.

Barca's statement read: "Barcelona is to appeal the suspension issued to Leo Messi. The competition committee announced on Tuesday that the Argentinian's red card in the final minutes of the Supercopa de Espana final against Athletic Club shall incur a two-match ban."

Barcelona captain Lionel Messi has been banned for two domestic matches following his red card in the Supercopa de Espana final defeat to Athletic Bilbao.

Messi was dismissed in the 119th minute of Sunday's game as he took a swing at Asier Villalibre in an off-the-ball incident that was spotted by the VAR, and referee Jesus Gil Manzano subsequently showed him the red.

It was the first time he has been sent off for the club and only the third red card in his entire 17-year career for Barca and Argentina.

Reports in Spain had suggested an extended ban could be imposed on Messi, and a statement by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) confirmed on Tuesday that he will be suspended for Barca's next two games.

Therefore, he will miss the Copa del Rey game against Cornella and the league trip to Elche – he will return in time for another tussle with Villalibre and Athletic on January 31.

 

Paris Saint-Germain are keeping a close watch on the future of Barcelona captain Lionel Messi, according to the club's sporting director Leonardo. 

Messi has entered the final six months of his contract at Camp Nou and could make a sensational free transfer once his deal expires after this season. 

PSG and Manchester City have been tipped as the most likely clubs to sign the six-time Ballon d'Or winner, who was sent off in the 3-2 Supercopa de Espana loss to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, if he chooses not to extend his contract with Barca. 

While he says now is not the time to say anything concrete about a possible agreement, Leonardo suggests the Ligue 1 champions will be ready to make their move should Messi wish to seek a new challenge. 

"Great players like Messi will always be on PSG's list," he told France Football. "But this is of course not the time to talk about it, or to dream about it. 

"But we are sitting at the big table of those who are following the case closely. In fact, no, we're not yet sitting there, but our chair is reserved, just in case... 

"Four months is an eternity in football, especially at this time." 

It has been reported in France that PSG's priority for now is to extend the contracts of star forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. 

The world's most expensive two players see their present deals at Parc des Princes expire at the end of next season. 

Leonardo maintains PSG will not be forced into any special concessions in order to keep them at the club, but he has a positive feeling they can reach agreements. 

"I hope they're convinced PSG is a good place right now for an ambitious and very high-level footballer," he said. 

"We just have to find an agreement between their desires, their requirements, our expectations and our means. 

"We don't have to beg them 'please stay'. Those who really want to stay will stay. We talk regularly and I have good feelings on these two cases."

Ronald Koeman empathised with Lionel Messi's frustration after the superstar captain was sent off in Barcelona's Supercopa de Espana final loss against Athletic Bilbao.

Messi saw red for the first time in his illustrious club career as embattled LaLiga giants Barca were upstaged 3-2 by Athletic after extra time in Seville on Sunday.

After Athletic star Inaki Williams struck in the third minute of extra time, Messi swung at Asier Villalibre in an off-the-ball incident that was spotted by VAR and referee Jesus Gil Manzano brandished a red card.

Messi – who has been tipped to leave Camp Nou amid links with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain – is facing a lengthy suspension, but Barca head coach Koeman defended the 33-year-old.

"I can understand what Messi did," Koeman said afterwards.

"I don't know how many times they fouled him, and it's normal to react when they keep trying to foul you as a player who is looking to dribble with the ball, but I need to see it again properly."

Messi, who was fouled eight times against Athletic, recovered from a minor injury to return to Barcelona's line-up in his 753rd appearance for the Catalan club.

"Leo, after so many years in the elite of football, knows perfectly if he is in condition or not," Koeman said.

"We spoke before, he said he was in condition to play the game, he has given his maximum and nothing else."

Antoine Griezmann scored twice for Barca, including the 40th-minute opener, but his goals were cancelled out on both occasions at Estadio de La Cartuja.

Athletic's Oscar de Marcos equalised in the 42nd minute before substitute team-mate Villalibre forced extra time at the death, after Griezmann had restored Barca's lead with 13 minutes remaining.

Williams stepped up with a sublime goal as Barca – third in LaLiga and seven points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid – missed out on their first title under Koeman, who replaced Quique Setien ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.

"We are sad, disappointed by the result," Koeman added. "We played the final to win and not to lose that, yes. But there is no time to get off. We'll be playing soon, there's a cup and a league, there's no time for regrets.

"We have done positive things, we have improved. We have failed in the goals received. We have to be more forceful in defence. We must defend better in the area and not let the opponents think, they cannot control, turn and shoot easily. We can improve.

"My work ... I give the maximum I can. My work is not very good if we had won, nor very bad for losing. We are on the way, there are positive things, although losing today is very hard."

Barcelona star Antoine Griezmann said the LaLiga giants are "screwed, angry, upset" after being upstaged by Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Lionel Messi was sent off for the first time in his Barca career as the Catalan club lost 3-2 to Athletic following extra time in Seville on Sunday.

Griezmann scored twice, including the 40th-minute opener, but his goals were cancelled out on both occasions at Estadio de La Cartuja.

Athletic's Oscar de Marcos equalised in the 42nd minute before substitute team-mate Asier Villalibre forced extra time at the death, after Griezmann had restored Barca's lead with 13 minutes remaining.

Inaki Williams then scored a sublime goal in the third minute of extra time to secure Athletic's third Supercopa crown and first since 2015, with Messi's red card for lashing out at Villalibre adding to Barca's woes in the dying moments.

"How do you think we are?" Griezmann replied when asked how Barca felt post-game.

"We're screwed, angry, upset. When you lose a final, these are all the bad feelings you have.

"Athletic pressed very well. They gave everything until the last minute, and then what happened, happened. We have made mistakes in our strategy and we'll have to work on it during the week.

"We didn't defend well, we didn't communicate. When the ball comes out someone needs to shout."

France star Griezmann has scored five goals in his past four finals in all competitions for club and country.

He has also been directly involved in seven goals in his past four appearances for Barca across all competitions, after failing to score or assist a goal in any of his previous seven matches.

In LaLiga, Ronald Koeman's Barca are third and seven points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid – who have two games in hand.

Lionel Messi's Barcelona career has had just about everything - but until Sunday night the Argentine superstar had not been red-carded for the Camp Nou giants.

That changed when Messi was sent off for the first time in his club career after dramatically losing his cool late on in the 3-2 Supercopa de Espana final loss to Athletic Bilbao.

Messi, who recovered from a minor injury to take a place in Barca's starting line-up, saw red in what was his 753rd appearance for the club.

With 119 minutes of the match played, Messi swung at Asier Villalibre in an off-the-ball incident that was spotted by VAR and referee Jesus Gil Manzano reached into his back pocket.

The 33-year-old is now facing a possible extended ban that will carry over into LaLiga, with the disciplinary committee of the Spanish FA (RFEF) to have the final say on the length of the suspension.

It was the third red card of Messi's 17-year career overall, having also previously been dismissed twice for Argentina.

He was given his marching orders following a clash with Gary Medel in a Copa America third-place play-off in July 2019 and was famously sent off on his international debut against Hungary in 2005.

Messi failed to find the target from any of his three attempts in the loss to Athletic, who twice came from behind to win the competition for just a third time.

Antoine Griezmann scored twice, either side of Oscar De Marcos' equaliser, but Villalibre levelled up in the 90th minute and Inaki Williams scored a sublime winner three minutes into extra time.

Reflecting on the defeat, Barca boss Ronald Koeman - denied a first piece of silverware since succeeding Quique Setien at Camp Nou in August - said: "It was a difficult game. 

"We were really close to the victory. It is always difficult to concede just before half-time, and then again at the end. It's really difficult to handle."

Lionel Messi was sent off for the first time in his Barcelona career after Inaki Williams scored a sublime goal that gave Athletic Bilbao a shock 3-2 win in the Supercopa de Espana final.

The Catalan giants were on the brink of a record-extending 13th triumph in the competition after Antoine Griezmann scored twice, either side of Oscar De Marcos' equaliser, to put Barcelona 2-1 up late on in normal time.

But Athletic, who knocked out holders Real Madrid in the semi-finals, equalised through substitute Asier Villalibre in the 90th minute and Williams scored early on in the additional period to turn the tie on its head.

Captain Messi was then dramatically sent off in the dying moments of extra time when VAR spotted an off-the-ball incident involving Villalibre, as the Argentinian violently knocked the Athletic player to the ground.

Barca were seeking their silverware under Ronald Koeman but it proved to be a night they would want to quickly forget.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen palmed Ander Capa's long-range drive over the crossbar from the game's first short on target as Athletic threatened after 26 minutes.

Barca slowly found their rhythm and took the lead through their first meaningful attack, Griezmann drilling home after Messi's shot from a Jordi Alba cutback was blocked.

It took Athletic just a minute and 33 seconds to respond through De Marcos, who ghosted in to guide Williams' impressive pass over the top away from Ter Stegen.

And Garcia thought he had given his side the lead just before the hour mark, only for his header to be rightly ruled out for offside following a VAR check.

Athletic lost 3-2 to Barca when the sides met in LaLiga less than two weeks ago but they continued to look the more threatening as Williams blazed wide from inside the box.

Koeman's men appeared to have won the game in normal time when Alba again got in behind and teed up Griezmann to steer home, yet there was to be a late twist.

Captain Iker Muniain sent a free-kick into the box and Villalibre, having kept himself just onside, fired past Ter Stegen to salvage an additional 30 minutes.

Williams' moment of magic arrived three minutes into extra time as he cut inside Oscar Mingueza and curled the ball away from Ter Stegen into the top-right corner.

Barca had time to take the game to penalties but Griezmann volleyed wide at the back post from the best of their remaining chances.


What does it mean? Opportunity missed for Koeman

This competition may be fourth on the list of Barcelona's priorities this season, but Koeman targeted victory in this four-team tournament to strengthen his claims that the club are on the right track under his stewardship.

Having won four in a row in all competitions, including a penalty shoot-out victory over Real Sociedad in the semi-finals, they entered this match with momentum on their side and as heavy favourites.

Athletic may be 13 points below their opponents in LaLiga but they more than held their own in this final, outshooting their opponents 12-10 over the 120 minutes and showing a little extra cutting edge when it mattered most. The Messi red card was an alarming blight on an already desperately disappointing night for Barcelona.

Antoine at it again

Griezmann scored from two of his five shots and has now been directly involved in seven goals in four games, having failed to score or assist in his previous seven outings.

He has also scored five goals in the last four finals he has played for club and country - two for Atletico Madrid, one for France and now two for Barcelona.

Messi's moment of madness

In what was his 753rd appearance for Barcelona in all competitions, Messi was shown his first red card for an off-the-ball swing at Villalibre.

Even before that incident it was a frustrating day for the Argentina international on his return from a short lay-off as he failed to find the target from any of his three attempts.

What's next?

Barcelona switch focus to the Copa del Rey on Thursday with a trip to Cornella, though that last-32 tie could be in doubt due to reports of a coronavirus outbreak in the opposition's camp.

Athletic are up against lower-league opposition on the same day, too, as they take on Ibiza for a place in the last 16.

Lionel Messi was sent off for the first time in his Barcelona career after Inaki Williams scored a sublime goal that gave Athletic Bilbao a shock 3-2 win in the Supercopa de Espana final.

The Catalan giants were on the brink of a record-extending 13th triumph in the competition after Antoine Griezmann scored twice, either side of Oscar De Marcos' equaliser, to put Barcelona 2-1 up late on in normal time.

But Athletic, who knocked out holders Real Madrid in the semi-finals, equalised through substitute Asier Villalibre in the 90th minute and Williams scored early on in the additional period to turn the tie on its head.

Messi was then sent off in the dying moments of extra time when VAR spotted an off-the-ball incident involving Villalibre, as the Argentinian violently knocked the Athletic player to the ground.

Lionel Messi will have the final say over whether he plays a part in Barcelona's Supercopa de Espana final showdown with Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. 

The Argentina international missed Wednesday's penalty shoot-out victory over Real Sociedad in the semi-finals due to what was described as "discomfort". 

He trained individually on Friday and then with the rest of his team-mates on Saturday, though Koeman is unsure if his star man will be available to face Athletic at Estadio La Cartuja. 

"We will see. The player himself always has the last word," Koeman said at his pre-match news conference when asked if Messi will play. 

"We will wait until Sunday morning to see how his body reacts. We are hopeful he will be available tomorrow. 

"If you have the best players in your side, you always have a better chance of winning. We are talking of the number one player in the world. 

"With Leo the team is stronger in terms of creativity and effectiveness, which we otherwise sometimes lack. We have a system in mind but it depends if Leo is involved or not."

Sunday's clash with Athletic presents Koeman with an opportunity to win his first piece of silverware as Barca boss. 

The Catalan giants, who have won the competition a record 13 times, have had four days to recover for the game and Koeman feels his players are in good shape. 

"The team is fine and happy to play the final," he said. "We are very tired, but we have had enough time to fully recover.  

"A difficult game awaits us, against a rival who works hard and is very competitive. We have to try to play our game. 

"It is always important to win things to know that we are on the road. We know that it is not the most important competition, but it is always something for any of us to celebrate. 

"Winning shows us that we are on the right track. It will not be so decisive, but good for the confidence and to show that we have improved things.  

"It is another game to show that we are a strong team and that we fight every game. We will find an opponent who will have all their players ready." 

Athletic are 13 points below Barca in LaLiga but Koeman is wary of opponents who knocked out Real Madrid to reach the final. 

"It is a demonstration that tomorrow everything is possible," he said.  

"If Athletic are as competitive as they were [against Madrid] then it can make for a complicated game. They were effective against Madrid and deserved to go through." 

While Barca are gearing up for a cup final on the field, matters off it also remain a hot topic of discussion. 

It was announced on Friday that the presidential elections, originally scheduled to take place this month, have been pushed back until March. 

That delay means Barca are no longer in the market for new players, ruling out a rumoured move for Manchester City defender Eric Garcia, but Koeman fully understands the situation. 

The Dutchman said: "I have to tell you that I'm fine, happy. I know perfectly well the financial limitations of the club. If that is not possible, we will go ahead with what we have."

Lionel Messi will "do everything in his power" to stay at Barcelona as long as he receives a suitable offer, according to presidential candidate Joan Laporta.

Messi's future has been the subject of speculation and debate for many months, with the club captain attempting to force through a move away last August.

At the time, he was adamant a contractual clause that allowed him to leave for free was still active, but Barca refused to sanction an exit and Messi opted against dragging them through the courts.

Since then Messi has taken a few public jabs at the club, though the early resignation of previous president Josep Maria Bartomeu in October is thought to have been a positive development in Barca's bid to rebuild the relationship.

Messi's contract expires at the end of the season and he has assured fans he will not make any decisions until Barca's campaign has concluded.

Laporta, the overwhelming favourite to succeed Bartomeu when the presidential election is given the green light to go ahead in either February or March, is convinced Messi wants to stay with the Blaugrana.

"Messi is now totally focused on catching Atletico Madrid in LaLiga and playing the Paris Saint-Germain tie in the Champions League," Laporta is quoted as saying by Sport.

"I do not know if he will be playing on Sunday [in the Supercopa de Espana final] but he will be on the bench and it is important that Leo encourage his team-mates.

"I see him more and more happy, he is enjoying it. I know that he wants to stay and I know that he will do everything in his power to stay as long as the club can offer him an offer that suits him."

One player who looks likely to arrive at Barca is Manchester City defender Eric Garcia, who has long been linked with a return to Camp Nou, where he began his career.

Laporta understands Garcia will not join this month but, assuming the new board agrees to his signing, he is being lined up for the end of the season once his contract at City runs out.

"Eric Garcia will not come this winter," Laporta added. "We cannot give a letter to the manager to carry out acts of disposition.

"The options and figures have been explained to us and we have all concluded that if the contract ends, the new board decides to incorporate him.

"We have assessed the player's salary, and it was an operation that had to be carried out by assessing the financial situation of the club."

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman is unsure if Lionel Messi will be available for Sunday's Supercopa de Espana final.

Messi missed Wednesday's penalty shoot-out victory over Real Sociedad due to some "discomfort".

Marc-Andre ter Stegen made two saves in the shoot-out as Barca overcame Sociedad 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw, sending them into the final against either Real Madrid or Athletic Bilbao.

Koeman said he was still unsure if Messi would be available for the decider.

"First, I am very proud of this team, because if you count all the missing players we have in this moment, I think it is important to have people behind who can help. I think today we fulfilled in every way," Koeman told a news conference.

"I know Real [Sociedad] had their chances like us. We just managed to win after the penalties.

"Regarding Leo, we must wait the next days to know whether he is able to play."

Frenkie de Jong had put Barca ahead against Sociedad before Mikel Oyarzabal levelled from the spot in the second half.

Ter Stegen made six saves prior to the shoot-out, equalling his best tally in a single game for Barcelona this season.

"Of course to win on the penalties you must have a great goalkeeper, because Marc has stopped the first three penalties of Real and it is an important step regarding our possibilities to win," Koeman said.

"Also, I think Riqui [Puig] has the personality to take the responsibility to shoot the fifth [penalty]. It was important to score and reach the final."

Barcelona are without Lionel Messi for their Supercopa de Espana clash with Real Sociedad.

Messi scored twice in a 4-0 rout of Granada on Saturday, with the 33-year-old having now netted seven times and provided two assists in his past seven games, accumulating more goal involvements than any other LaLiga player over the same period.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner was taken off in the 65th minute and Koeman confirmed on Tuesday that Messi had some "discomfort", but the Barca boss hoped to have his talisman fit.

It has not proven to be the case, however, with Messi – who has scored 11 league goals in total this season – failing to make Barca's 18-man squad for their semi-final with La Real in Cordoba.

Antoine Griezmann will instead play off Martin Braithwaite, who leads the line, with support from Ousmane Dembele and Pedri.

Sergi Busquets made his 600th Barca appearance on Saturday and the 32-year-old sits in midfield alongside Frenkie de Jong, with Jordi Alba, Clement Lenglet, Oscar Mingueza and Ronald Araujo making up the defence, ahead of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

La Real on the other hand have been able to welcome back Nacho Monreal from an injury lay-off, though David Silva – who has not played since December 22 – does not feature.

The winners of Wednesday's tie will face Athletic Bilbao or LaLiga champions Real Madrid in the final.

And so, after two head coach sackings, a torrent of boardroom upheaval and the most discussed transfer request of all time, Barcelona return to the scene of the crime.

The scene in terms of the tournament itself, of course. But even after swapping Saudi Arabia for Seville, the memory of last season's Supercopa de Espana semi-final will be enough to bring many a Cule out in a cold sweat.

Barca led 2-1 going into the final 10 minutes of their encounter with Atletico Madrid at King Abdullah Sports City, only to lose 3-2. Ernesto Valverde would never lead them again.

To say Valverde's sacking and its aftermath were shoddily handled would go some way to redefining the notion of understatement.

Club great Xavi was courted before deciding he would rather lead his boyhood club at a more agreeable time, one without mayhem spewing everywhere behind the scenes at Camp Nou.

Quique Setien took the reins and came to look out of his depth long before the 8-2 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich. Despite it being a game that caused shockwaves around world football, "8-2" still feels an utterly preposterous thing to type.

Sporting director Eric Abidal called out the squad for a perceived lack of effort during Valverde's final days, a somewhat belated show of solidarity with a coach he unceremoniously bundled towards the exit door.

Lionel Messi took umbrage and an unseemly public spat was still festering by the time LaLiga resumed following the coronavirus shutdown. Barca surrendered the title to Real Madrid before their night of shame in Lisbon.

Setien was gone and newly installed boss Ronald Koeman decided Luis Suarez should follow him through the exit door, something that did nothing to improve Messi's mood as he sought to prise himself away from Barcelona before being forced to stay under contractual duress.

A 2-1 defeat to Cadiz on December 5 left Barca seventh in LaLiga with 14 points from 10 games, with Koeman's dream job turning rapidly into a nightmare.

A listless 3-0 Champions League loss at home to Juventus followed, ceding top spot in their group. But since then, Barcelona are unbeaten in eight LaLiga matches, winning six, and Opta data suggests they might be in better health ahead of Wednesday's semi-final against Real Sociedad than at this time last year.

Creating more under Koeman

In 24 games under Koeman in all competitions, Barca have scored 53 and conceded 22, averaging 2.21 and 0.92 per game respectively in all competitions.

Heading into the semi-final with Atletico, Valverde's team were top of LaLiga with 40 points from 19 matches. That betters the 34 from 18 that Koeman's men have to lie third this time around, but it should be noted that leaders Atleti have 41 points from just 16 outings so far.

The numbers behind Valverde's final half-season at the helm hint at comparative progress under Koeman.

When the former Athletic Bilbao boss led the Blaugrana during the period in question, they averaged 2.32 goals per game with 58 in 25.

However, that hugely out-performed an expected goals (xG) figure of 41.1, meaning they were getting out of jail a fair bit thanks largely to a certain special player. Koeman's Barca are in line with an xG of 53.66 this season, with shots per game up to 16.9 from 12.5 in the same period under Valverde.

Both men left their defences grateful for wasteful finishing, with an xG against of 30.37 for Valverde and 29.83 for Koeman.

 

Messi still the master, Pedri and Griezmann stepping up

Despite a slow start to the season after his attempted exit, Barcelona's main man looks to be back up to speed.

In 21 games this term Messi has 14 goals, closing on the 15 from 19 in his final stint with Valverde as boss, when he hugely out-performed an xG of 9.83.

His importance to Barca remains paramount, leading the way in chance creation (51) as he did in the first half of last season (47).

Suarez was next on that list with 29 last time around. Although no one has filled the breach of 14 goals scored in the period by a man now spearheading Atleti's title charge, youngster Pedri has stepped up to craft 29 opportunities for team-mates.

Frenkie de Jong has created 25 chances from midfield - up from 19. The often maligned Antoine Griezmann has made the same leap, despite being on the pitch for 396 fewer minutes compared to last season. However, until he lifts considerably his goal and assist contributions from seven and four respectively, unflattering comparisons to Suarez and Neymar will remain.

There are numerous shafts of light permeating the gloom that descended upon Barcelona a year ago. Enough to justify the chaos of the interim period? Of course not, but there might be legs in the fragile Koeman-Messi axis yet.

Nevertheless, as Barca face up to Sociedad and Real Madrid prepare to take on Athletic Bilbao, it is hard to escape who this week's real winner will be.

A clinical 2-0 win over Sevilla on Tuesday put Atletico four points clear at LaLiga's summit with two games in hand. Diego Simeone's men will have enjoyed the Barcelona demise they triggered; this time they get to put their feet up for eight days and enjoy their fellow heavyweights punching holes in one another.

 

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