Didier Deschamps is not worried about Antoine Griezmann's lack of form ahead of France's Nations League Finals campaign this week.

The 30-year-old returned to Atletico Madrid from Barcelona in a high-profile transfer at the end of August following two largely underwhelming campaigns at Camp Nou.

Griezmann was expected to revive his career in the Spanish capital, but he has managed just one goal and no assists in seven appearances in his second spell with Atletico.

That solitary strike came in last week's 2-1 win over Milan in the Champions League, though he was again left out of Atletico's starting lineup for Saturday's showdown with Barcelona.

He has been named in Deschamps' 23-man squad for this week's Nations League Finals, which will see France face Belgium in the semi-finals on Thursday.

Les Blues will then either take on Italy or Spain in Sunday's final or third-placed play-off, depending on the outcome of both semi-finals.

And Deschamps has no concerns about using Griezmann, who has 41 goals in 98 caps for France, in those matches.

"His goal in the Champions League was very positive," Deschamps said at a news conference on Monday. "Even though he didn't start, that goal will give him confidence.

"He has returned to a club he knows well, but with different players around him. He can't just click his fingers.

"But because of his qualities and state of mind, I do not worry about him. I know he will be happy to join up with the France team."

Griezmann played a full part for France in their World Cup semi-final clash with Belgium en route to lifting the trophy in 2018, setting up Samuel Umtiti's winning goal.

The Nations League presents France with a chance to add to that triumph, having exited Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage, but they must overcome two sides ranked in the world's top eight.

"There is a title at stake; we have a semi-final to play against one of the best teams in the world," he said. 

"With Italy and Spain on the other side, there are four of us fighting for this title. We did everything to qualify for this final phase in a very tough group. 

"We want to get this title. Before there were two titles: the Euros and the World Cup. Now there is the Nations League. Winning it is our goal."

Belgium have named a vastly experienced squad for the Finals, with Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard all boasting over 100 caps.

Roberto Martinez's men only reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, where they were beaten by tournament winners Italy – their only defeat in 17 matches and one of only two defeats in 31 games since November 2018.

Ranked number one in the world, Deschamps acknowledged France face a big task against Belgium on Thursday.

"They have evolved well, with six or seven players on 100 or more caps," he said. "They are the best team in the FIFA rankings and have a very experienced core.

"It is a beautiful generation of players, but one that has not yet had the happiness of success at the Euros or World Cup."

Deschamps added: "It's going to be a fight at a physical, tactical and technical level. There is a lot of respect between myself and Roberto Martinez and also between the players.

"But there is of course a rivalry there because we are border countries, which we also have with Italy and Spain.

"There was also the 2018 semi-final we played, but this match cannot change what happened then. That will not have too much importance this week."

What does the future hold for Erling Haaland?

The Borussia Dortmund forward is wanted across Europe.

However, Haaland could remain in Germany…

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND SET FOR DORTMUND STAY?

Erling Haaland is a player in demand but he is not certain to leave Borussia Dortmund, according to Sport Bild.

Haaland has been tipped to depart Dortmund at the end of the season amid links with Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

But Norwegian pundit Jan Aage Fjortoft suggests Haaland could remain at the Bundesliga outfit for longer than many expect.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sky Sports Italian claims Fiorentina chairman Rocco Commisso is concerned whether star forward Dusan Vlahovic intends to sign a new contract with Viola. Contracted until 2023, the Serbia international has been in talks regarding a new deal as the likes of City, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal and Inter reportedly circle.

- United are still backing under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to Fabrizio Romano.

- Tuttomercatoweb reports Atletico have joined the race to sign Chelsea's Timo Werner, who has found himself behind Romelu Lukaku at Stamford Bridge. Bayern and Dortmund are also reportedly eyeing Werner.

Madrid have been offered the chance to sign RB Leipzig Christopher Nkunku in 2022, says Mundo Deportivo.

Could Darwin Nunez be the next Benfica star to make a big move?

Portuguese sensation Joao Felix swapped Benfica for Atletico Madrid in a club-record deal in 2019.

Now, Uruguay international Nunez is attracting interest from across Europe.

 

TOP STORY – CITY FRONT OF QUEUE FOR NUNEZ

Manchester City are leading the race to sign Darwin Nunez from Portuguese giants Benfica, according to the Daily Star.

Premier League champions City are desperate to sign a forward amid links with Tottenham's Harry Kane, Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic.

Nunez has also reportedly attracted interest from BarcelonaLiverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Milan, Inter and Atletico Madrid.

 

ROUND-UP

– United forward Edinson Cavani could join Real Madrid in January, claims Mundo Deportivo. It comes as Cavani finds himself battling Cristiano Ronaldo for regular game time at Old Trafford, where the club's hierarchy are concerned amid their form under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

- The Daily Star reports Arsenal are weighing up a move for out-of-favour City forward Raheem SterlingBarca are also believed to be interested in Sterling, according to The Sun, as they face the prospect of missing out on Leipzig's Dani Olmo. The Spain international has been linked with United, Juventus and Bayern.

Liverpool are eyeing Pogon Szczecin midfielder Kacper Kozlowski, says the Mirror. The 17-year-old has been linked with Bayer Leverkusen, Milan, RB Leipzig and Salzburg.

Ronald Koeman is grateful to have been given "clarity" over his Barcelona future after president Joan Laporta confirmed the under-fire head coach will remain in charge of the beleaguered club.

Former Netherlands boss Koeman was widely reported to be on the verge of being sacked by Barca this week, with Saturday's trip to Wanda Metropolitano set to be his final game.

The Dutchman appeared to accept his fate when speaking to reporters at a pre-match news conference on Friday as he hit out at Laporta for failing to inform him face-to-face.

However, Laporta clarified ahead of Barca's clash with Atletico on Saturday – which ended in a 2-0 loss – that Koeman's position was not under threat regardless of the scoreline.

After being given a reprieve, the 58-year-old is already preparing for Barca's next batch of fixtures after the two-week international break.

"The conversation I had [with Laporta] over the phone last night was very good," Koeman said after the defeat to Atleti.

"We also spoke this morning about the squad, the club and other things. At least now there is some clarity in that sense. It's important for the dressing room that there is clarity. 

"But we are Barcelona, and now we have to start winning games. The pressure exists for any coach, particularly at Barcelona. After the break, we have three games we must win.

"We have spoken together and the president has made his decision."

 

Asked if he would have liked Laporta's backing sooner, Koeman said: "I think so, but we must highlight that it has now been said, and it will bring us tranquillity."

Laporta's public support came on the back of a run of one win in five games in all competition, which has now been extended by a further match following defeat to Atleti. 

Luis Suarez teed up Thomas Lemar for the opener and then tucked away the second himself before half-time to condemn his former side to their first league loss since May.

With that clinically taken goal, Suarez has now netted against all 31 of the teams he has faced in LaLiga, scoring 172 goals in total.

Barca had the whole of the second half to respond but managed just two attempts on target, only one of which – a Philippe Coutinho one-on-one – seriously troubled Jan Oblak.

"I'm sad about the result, but we were good in parts of the game," Koeman said. "We also let ourselves down, especially for the first goal.

"We talked before the game about how to defend. They have a lot of depth, but we failed to defend and 1-0 is a complicated scoreline.

"At times we could have done more damage. At two goals down against a team like Atletico, it is very complicated. We had the Coutinho chance, but that's it.

"We could not create much. We have to recognise that creating against Atletico is not easy. You have to play very well as they have a lot of defensive strength.

 

The Catalan giants are ninth in LaLiga after seven matches, five points adrift of leaders Real Madrid, who they face later this month after the visit of Valencia.

"There is a solution to our problems," said Koeman, who has not won any of his three games against Diego Simeone in LaLiga (D1 L2).

"But that solution is not from today to tomorrow. We have to work hard and give time to the youngsters. I also hope we will be able to recover injured players soon."

Diego Simeone did not feel Atletico Madrid were any better against Barcelona on Saturday than in previous meetings, with Lionel Messi's absence instead the decisive factor.

Atletico have had a poor record against Barca in Simeone's time at the club, going 20 without a win in this fixture before their 1-0 success in 2020-21.

But they have now gone three without conceding to the Blaugrana in LaLiga for the first time, having drawn 0-0 at the end of last season and won 2-0 on Saturday.

Barca had 70.4 per cent of the possession but created only nine shots worth a combined 1.0 expected goals at the Wanda Metropolitano.

New Paris Saint-Germain signing Messi had scored 26 goals in 30 LaLiga games against Atleti – only managing more against Sevilla (30) and Valencia (27) – and a lack of cutting edge was evident without him.

"It's the first game we played against Barca without Messi," coach Simeone told a news conference. "Other games there has not been much difference to this one, but now Messi is not there."

By contrast, Atleti were ruthless in attack, led by former Barca superstar Luis Suarez.

He teed up the opener for Thomas Lemar, who returned the favour for Suarez to score against Barca for the first time, meaning he has netted against all 31 opponents he has faced in Spain's top flight.

Joao Felix was also involved in both goals, with the opener including one of four passes he completed to Suarez. He found no team-mate more often.

The Portugal international started ahead of Antoine Griezmann, who failed to fire from the bench, but Simeone was not ready to declare Joao Felix and Suarez his new first-choice front line.

"At this hour, we can't get carried away by one game," he said. "There's [Angel] Correa, Griezmann's moment. He scored in the Champions League.

"We have important footballers. Hopefully they can accept that we can be a group so we can be a team."

Luis Suarez insists his goal celebration during Atletico Madrid's victory over Barcelona was not a mockery of former boss Ronald Koeman.

Suarez was on target as reigning LaLiga champions Atletico intensified the pressure on the Barca head coach with a 2-0 win at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Latching on to Thomas Lemar's lofted pass in the 44th minute, the Uruguay forward steadied himself before firing past Marc-Andre ter Stegen for his fourth goal of the season.

Suarez has now found the net against all 31 opponents he has faced in LaLiga, taking his tally in the Spanish top flight to 172 goals.

The 34-year-old did not celebrate immediately after his strike – instead appearing to ask for forgiveness from the supporters of his former side, for whom he scored 198 goals in 283 appearances, as well as providing 97 assists.

However, he subsequently imitated being on the phone in what was perceived to be a jibe at the expense of Koeman, who informed the striker he was not in his plans after taking over the reins at the Camp Nou in August 2020.

But Suarez says the gesture was in fact the representation of an inside family joke.

"I already knew that if I scored, I would apologise – out of respect, affection," he said.

"[The phone signal] was for people who know that I have the same number and that I am still using the phone. 

"It was not for Koeman; I was joking with my children that I would do that."

The 2-0 victory also gave Atletico a third consecutive clean sheet against Barca for the first time in LaLiga history.

More importantly, it moved Diego Simeone's side level on points with leaders Real Madrid, who have a game in hand on their rivals.

"I'm happy for the team's victory, which is what we want," Suarez added.

"The opponent in front of us is special, but my work must be dedicated 100 per cent to Atletico.

"Last year, people suffered for not being able to enjoy the LaLiga title. 

"I know the affection that people have for me and I work hard and strong to keep Atletico at the top."

Gerard Pique accepts Barcelona were second best in their defeat to Atletico Madrid and says his side could have played for three hours and still would not have scored a goal.

The Catalan giants fell to a second straight defeat in all competitions – and their first in LaLiga since May – as they went down 2-0 to a Luis Suarez-inspired Atletico on Saturday.

Barca had two shots on target over the 90 minutes at Wanda Metropolitano, only one of which seriously troubled Jan Oblak as he kept out Philippe Coutinho's attempt.

Memphis Depay, who has had the joint-most shots on target of any player in LaLiga this term (13, level with Real Madrid's Karim Benzema), struggled up top as he fired over from his only effort.

Atletico were clinical at the other end by comparison, scoring from two of their six shots as Suarez set up Thomas Lemar for the opener and calmly tucked in a second before half-time.

Barca have now shipped five goals without response in their past two games, and Pique, who played a full part in the losses to Benfica and Atleti, recognises his side have multiple issues to work on.

"We started well, but they scored two similar goals from very little," he told Movistar. "It is difficult for us. We are suffering and there are several problems.

"People already know the issues. Even a blind man can see what we lack. But we will recover from this.

"It is not something we have experienced before, but the dressing room is good. We're not getting involved in anything else."

 

Pique was referring to the ongoing speculation over head coach Ronald Koeman's future, with the Dutchman's status uncertain after 14 months in charge, although he this week received a public vote of confidence from Joan Laporta.

Barca have won just one of their past six matches in all competitions and are ninth in LaLiga having played seven games, five points adrift of leaders Real Madrid.

Asked if he expects Koeman to leave before his side's next game at home to Valencia in two weeks' time, Pique said: "The players don't get involved in that.

"We just listen to what the coach tells us. There is little we can do. That's down to the president and the coach."

Barcelona lack many things right now: a top level coach, a Champions League wage budget, Lionel Messi, of course. But a nose for narrative? That has never been in question.

Luis Suarez's apologetic celebrations at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday, as Ronald Koeman checked the charge on his mobile phone, represented merely the latest desperate development for those of a Blaugrana persuasion – all too predictable, all too preventable.

For so long Suarez, who made one and scored one for Atletico Madrid in this 2-0 victory, had been in the Barca ranks, an unwitting spectator for a stretch of their spectacular collapse from European football's shining example to its great crisis club.

Barca at least had rather less say in the departure that kickstarted this decline than in Suarez's.

The beginning of the end, it seemed, came on the night of one of their greatest wins, a stunning 6-1 success against Paris Saint-Germain orchestrated by Neymar. In overturning a hefty first-leg deficit but allowing the Brazil superstar to step out from Messi's shadow, Barca's joy emboldened his desire to be the main man in his own team – the other team, to be precise.

Of course, Neymar left, and Barca, rather than rallying from behind, twice in the next two seasons built big European leads of their own – at home to Roma and Liverpool – only to remarkably let both bring about return-leg remontadas.

The Blaugrana, seemingly without a thought for their finances, responded to the Liverpool reverse with their third nine-figure signing in three years, as Antoine Griezmann followed Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele to Camp Nou and followed both in underwhelming.

By the time their next Champions League campaign concluded in typically farcical fashion, all three were on the bench – Griezmann and Dembele for Barca, Coutinho for opponents Bayern Munich. On came Coutinho, still on loan from Barca, to score twice in 15 minutes against his parent club. Since returning to Catalonia, he has scored three times in 1,041 minutes, missing their best chance on Saturday.

 

Bayern's 8-2 win prompted Quique Setien's sacking and Koeman's appointment, which surprisingly then spelled the end for Suarez. "The coach did not count on me," the striker said as he joined Atletico. "I expected it, it had already been said before he told me."

From an eight-goal humiliation, a club of Barca's size should only be able to head in one direction, back on the ascent. But Suarez's departure deepened the damage. An unsettled Messi allowed his contract to run down and, in a manner that only Barca could manage, had to leave even once he changed his mind.

Four years of bad decisions led Barca to this point and Suarez, starting in the Atleti attack, was never likely to be one for sympathy. With neither a coherent plan nor an individual of era-defining talent to fall back on, Koeman's side were ill-equipped to deal with a man he had deemed surplus to requirements.

Twice Atleti pulled the Barca back line apart, Koeman phoning in from the stands due to a touchline ban but mirroring the gesticulations of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Memphis Depay as the visitors failed to get close to Suarez.

A drop of the shoulder from Joao Felix for the first brought him inside from the left to find his strike partner, whose first-time pass around the corner set Thomas Lemar clear to finish high into the net.

The same trio combined for number two, Lemar playing a patient one-two with Joao Felix down the same left flank and then lofting an inch-perfect pass over last defender Pique for Suarez to control, compose himself and steer past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

"The opponent in front of us is special, but my work must be dedicated 100 per cent to Atletico," Suarez told Movistar afterwards – the Atleti goal never truly troubled as they earned a third straight LaLiga clean sheet against Barca for the first time ever.

 

By full-time, Suarez had been able to remove the wide grin from his face long enough to console his former team-mates, having moments earlier been hopping with glee on the Atleti bench.

He was replaced with 18 minutes remaining but surely would have added to his tally had he stayed on the pitch. Instead, Atleti's final big opportunity fell to Griezmann, back on the bench in a big Barcelona game, this time playing the Coutinho role for the opposition. Rather than ruthlessly finish like either of the ex-Liverpool men when faced with the chance to punish the club he used to call home, Griezmann went for a pass, which he comically misplaced. With a future obligation in his loan switch meaning he will not return to Camp Nou like Coutinho, the France international need not have been so generous.

Despite sharing more than seven years between these two teams, Griezmann has somehow never scored in this fixture – featuring in every edition in that time – and never won LaLiga. Atleti had gone 20 without a win against Barca before last season's meeting, in which Griezmann started for the Catalans.

An underwhelming start to his second Atleti career saw him dropped for this game, setting the stage for Joao Felix to excel, contesting 10 duels, winning four fouls and playing a key role in both goals. Griezmann is an expensive substitute; Barca's €97million salary cap could not even fit him in the first team.

Nor, it seems, can they afford to sack Koeman, out of his depth but determined to stick around. His future, Joan Laporta said, was safe regardless of this result.

Surely only that financial factor will prevent Suarez from seeing off the coach that ended his Barca stay. Scoring against the 31st of 31 LaLiga opponents, the forward gave it a good go, at least.

Luis Suarez scored one and assisted another to earn Atletico Madrid a 2-0 win over Barcelona that heaps even more pressure on Blaugrana boss Ronald Koeman.

The Dutchman's job has been repeatedly called into question following a poor run of form, with the result at Wanda Metropolitano making it one win in Barca's last six games.

Barca could have lifted some of the weight off Koeman's shoulders on Saturday, but Suarez set up Thomas Lemar for the opener and then fired in a second to put Atleti in control at half-time.

That is how the scoreline stayed as Diego Simeone's men inflicted a first league defeat of the season on their opponents to move level on points with Real Madrid at the summit.

 

Koeman was watching from the stands as he serves the second of a two-game touchline ban and saw his side fall behind to a well-worked Atleti goal with 23 minutes played.

Suarez was picked out by Joao Felix and then played a first-time pass into the path of Lemar for the France international to thump past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Former Barca man Suarez curled wide with only Ter Stegen to beat soon after, but he made amends by picking his spot when played in by Lemar at the end of a swift counter.

Philippe Coutinho, having earlier volleyed narrowly wide, wasted a glorious chance to pull one back when failing to get the better of Jan Oblak with an hour on the clock.

Joao Felix and Barca substitute Ansu Fati exchanged shots on target at either end in latter stages but no further goals arrived in the Spanish capital, potentially bringing down the curtain on Koeman's short-lived tenure.

Diego Simeone is full of respect for Ronald Koeman and sympathises with his opposite number's current situation as Atletico Madrid prepare to host Barcelona in LaLiga.

Atletico lost their previous league match against Deportivo Alaves and are aiming to avoid suffering consecutive defeats in the competition for the first time since 2019.

Simeone's side sit in fourth and have won just one of their last 11 top-flight home games against Barca, who are unbeaten in their first LaLiga six matches this term, though there is mounting pressure on head coach Ronald Koeman.

Reports suggest the under-fire Koeman is soon to be relieved of his duties at Camp Nou, but Simeone spoke highly of the Dutchman ahead of Saturday's meeting in the Spanish capital.

"He will surely be in an uncomfortable situation and, on our side, I imagine that all of his colleagues respect him as a coach and he will surely always do well," Simeone told reporters at Friday's pre-match news conference.

"I am not the one to value anything. I respect Koeman very much, he has shown personality and I wish him the best. As for the transition, we are very busy with ourselves and we do not worry about what happens on another team.

"We think about the value of the rival players, Barcelona has great footballers, a very good coach with a lot of personality and we focus on doing well ourselves, improving ourselves."

 

The fixture may well signify the end for Koeman, who will be absent from the touchline after his dismissal against Cadiz, but it also sees Luis Suarez go up against his former club once again.

The forward has scored against 30 of the 31 opponents he has faced in LaLiga, with Barca the only side Suarez has failed to find the net against so far.

However, Simeone insisted there was no change in motivation for Suarez, while he also praised the versatility of Antoine Griezmann following his return to the club from Barcelona.

"I see him [Suarez] as always, since he arrived here, with the same hunger, enthusiasm and we try to empower him that the best thing he has is the goal," Simeone said.

"We always put him [Griezmann] where he normally plays. Footballers always have a privileged place, I like to play here.

"The important thing is where the team needs it and Antoine I have no doubt that where we put him, the other day as a midfielder, I am sure he can help us wherever we put him."

Ronald Koeman seemingly accepted that his time as Barcelona head coach is up but has questioned whether his replacement will do a better job with the players available.

Wednesday's 3-0 loss to Benfica – making it back-to-back defeats to begin a Champions League campaign for the first time in Barca's history – has upped the pressure on Koeman.

Amid a run of one win in five matches in all competitions, reports from Spain on Friday suggest this weekend's trip to Atletico will be the Dutchman's last in charge.

Barca president Joan Laporta is said to have made the decision in the wake of the heavy loss in Lisbon and a replacement will reportedly be brought in during the international break.

While Koeman has yet to discuss his future with Laporta, the ex-Netherlands boss admits the reports in the Spanish and Catalan press are telling.

"The club hasn't told me anything, really," he said at a news conference on Friday previewing his side's clash with Atletico. 

"I found out that the president was here this morning but I didn't see him. We were training but I'm still the same. 

"I have ears and eyes and I already know that a lot of things leak. Surely it's true but to me, once again, he has not said anything to me.

"I am not the most important thing, but the team. I am here for the love of the club. I came here during a complicated situation – more complicated than the first day.

"Everyone has their opinion but I am only interested in the players and the Atletico game."

 

Luis Enrique and Roberto Martinez, in charge of Spain and Belgium respectively, ruled themselves out of the running to replace Koeman this week.

A number of other high-profile names have been linked, but Koeman – who saw Lionel Messi depart for Paris Saint-Germain in August – feels the situation will remain the same.

"I don't know if another coach would be able to get more out of this side," he said. "There are a lot of young players here.

"There's been talk about the system, but that's because players are unavailable. There are no wingers. The job of the coach is to work with the players available.

"If I had a bag of money, I would still have Messi here and other players alongside him. If we recover attacking players, we can have a strong and young squad."

Jordi Cruyff, who was appointed as a sporting advisor by Barca in June, is another who has been tipped to succeed Koeman in the coming days or weeks.

"I talk to Jordi every day," Koeman said. "But what we talk about stays between us. From the first day he told me he was not going to take over as the club's coach."

 

Koeman has been under pressure since the end of last season and the 58-year-old has regularly had to defend his position.

"I'm tired of doing that," he said when asked to highlight the work he has done in his 14 months at the helm.

"We have done important things during a period of change. One day I will speak and say what I think."

Asked for his best and worst moments in charge, Koeman said: "It seems I'm out but the best was signing for the club, the worst was Messi's departure."

Koeman's immediate focus is on the match with Atletico, who have beaten Barca just once in their last 11 league meetings in the Spanish capital.

A victory for the Catalan giants would move them above the champions in the table, though Koeman is expecting another tough test.

"We are sides with different styles, but they both lead to winning many things," he said. "They were deservedly champions last season.

"It's difficult to create chances against them. They are great at defending their area and you have to be very good with the last pass. Only by scoring can you beat them."

Young midfielder Pedri and full-back Jordi Alba have both been ruled out of the match through injury.

Barcelona had not lost to Benfica since 1961. They had not started a European season with consecutive defeats since 1972-73. They had last lost back-to-back Champions League group games 21 years ago.

And yet, the most damning thing about their 3-0 defeat in Lisbon on Wednesday was that it wasn't a huge surprise.

By most reasonable football definitions, Barca are in crisis. They have won just three of eight games in all competitions in 2021-22. Spiralling debts of more than €1.2billion meant they could not give Lionel Messi a new contract or conduct any meaningful recruitment, even as club captains took pay cuts.

Those dire financial figures also mean they have a spending cap barely an eighth of the size of Real Madrid's for this season, so January is unlikely to offer much of a chance to change things. And, in Ronald Koeman, they have a coach who appears increasingly out of his depth, unable to inspire his players or maintain much cordiality with the suits above him.

There is speculation that Barca's next game could be his last in charge... and it just happens to be against the champions. How has it come to this?

 

Passive passing

It should be repeated that many of Barca's problems are not of Koeman's making. He was appointed by Josep Maria Bartomeu after the historic ignominy of that 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich, when years of squad mismanagement came home to roost in one horrifying performance. With no money to keep Messi or greatly improve the team, Koeman has been hamstrung in his efforts to build a side capable even of competing for pride, never mind titles.

It's also true that Koeman's system is a mess.

There's a semblance of playing 'the Barca way'. For one thing, they love having the ball: the Catalans average the most possession in LaLiga this season (68.4 per cent), while their average of 4.54 passes per sequence is the highest in the division, and only league leaders Real Madrid (112) have put together more sequences of 10 passes or more than Barca (106). They also press high, restricting opposition teams to just eight passes per defensive action on average, the best figure in the league.

The trouble is, they don't seem to make the most of these positives.

 

Despite ostensibly pressing with intent, their return of 53 high turnovers is only joint-seventh in LaLiga. Despite controlling the ball for the majority of matches, they have only created 55 chances from open play – eight teams have created more – and attempted 72 shots, the 13th-highest tally in the competition. Even crosses are scarce: five teams can better their figure of 211 deliveries into the box.

For context, Sunday's opponents Atletico Madrid have attempted 96 shots this season, the third-most in the league, created 10 more goalscoring chances than Barca and played 44 more passes into the penalty area – and all while facing a league-low 45 shots on their own goal, 14 fewer than Koeman's men. Even taking into account Barca's game in hand, these are notable differences.

 

A Messi divorce

Barca knew they would miss Messi. Koeman knew they would miss Messi. Anyone who has ever kicked a football knew they would miss Messi.

But, boy, they really do miss him.

Barca finished LaLiga last season with 85 goals, 18 more than any other side, 30 of which were scored by Messi. They outperformed their expected goals figure by 11.04, with only champions Atletico doing so by a greater margin (13.95). Messi himself exceeded his xG by 6.21.

 

Excluding penalties and own goals, Barca outperformed their xG of 74 in 2020-21. Their 583 shots, the most among LaLiga teams, each carried an average value of 0.13xG.

 

This season, Barca have scored 11 goals, which almost exactly matches their xG – and that is despite the average xG value of their shots increasing very slightly to 0.15. Without Messi's abnormal abilities, they are reverting towards the norm.

It's amazing how much better things look when someone is there to stick the ball in the net.

 

Dutch courage

Which brings us to Memphis Depay, the big positive of Koeman's time in charge.

Trying to fill Messi's shoes might be beyond mere mortals, but the way Depay has settled into his role as Barca's attacking lynchpin has been extremely impressive. The Netherlands forward has fulfilled his former international boss' requirements, leading the line with aplomb even when the team around him has floundered.

Depay has managed three goals and one assist in all competitions, more than any other Barca player. With 2.49 expected assists, he can consider himself unlucky not to have a greater tally of goal involvements, too.

To date, Depay has attempted 22 shots, more than three times as many as any team-mate, and created 18 chances, six more than the next-best figure posted by Frenkie de Jong.

 

Among LaLiga players in all competitions, only Karim Benzema (16) and Vinicius Junior (14) have mustered more shots on target than Depay (13), while only three players in Spain's top flight have completed more dribbles than the former Lyon and Manchester United man (21). He has embraced the pressure of leading the Barcelona line in one of the toughest periods in their recent history. He just can't do it alone.

If Koeman's reign is to survive this weekend, he will have to hope Depay can produce some magic against Atletico – although even that may not be enough.

Real Madrid's salary cap spending limits for the 2021-22 season is seven times greater than financially stricken Barcelona's, LaLiga has announced.

Los Blancos have seen their limit boosted by €270million, with Barca's reduced by €280m.

Carlo Ancelotti's side will be capped at just over €739m, but Barca can spend only €97m – with six clubs able to splash more than them.

Reigning champions Atletico Madrid have also been hit, with their limit reduced by €81m from last term, resulting in Diego Simeone's men allowed to spend €171m for the next campaign – the third-highest ceiling in the division.

LaLiga corporate director Jose Guerra suggested to ESPN that Madrid's limit, which is over €500m more than any other LaLiga team, would have left room for them to secure Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe, who they attempted to sign last transfer window.

"They [Real Madrid] would have no problem whatsoever," LaLiga corporate director Jose Guerra said to ESPN. "They were ready for [Kylian] Mbappe or any other player."

LaLiga calculates these figures by considering club's earnings, spendings, overheads, losses and debts to encourage sustainability and financial fair play.

 

Barca caused conflict with the league in August when they, along with Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, refused to sign a deal to sell 10 per cent of its business to CVC Capital Partners and later saw Blaugrana legend Lionel Messi leave for PSG because of the club's perilous financial situation.

Players such as Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba responded by agreeing payment deferrals and salary reductions, but Guerra explained the Catalan club's severe decrease is down to losses of almost €500m last season.

"They acknowledge much higher losses than what they had initially estimated, so the impact is greater on their spending limit," Guerra continued.

"If you take the €97m limit and add the losses, around €480m, we're talking about €570m, which would be more normal. So it's more or less stable."

While Barca expect their cap to increase in the following season due to writing off several assets in last year's accounts, Guerra also warned that this was not guaranteed as LaLiga consider past losses moving forward.

Sevilla have the second largest kitty, capped at €200m, with Villarreal (€159m), Real Sociedad (€127m) and Athletic Bilbao (€111m) making up the top six.

However, Valencia – who won LaLiga in 2003-04 – have the smallest limit, with their spending reduced to just €31m, which is a €71m fall from the previous year.

Cristiano Ronaldo is showing no signs of slowing down, despite his advancing years.

But the evergreen 36-year-old is still planning for life once he decides to call it quits.

A coaching career in Manchester is believed to be on the cards.

 

TOP STORY – RONALDO DOESN'T WANT TO LEAVE OLD TRAFFORD

Cristiano Ronaldo wants to stay at Manchester United beyond his retirement, according to The Sun.

Ronaldo is back at United for a second spell after re-joining from Juventus before the transfer window closed, having left Old Trafford in 2009.

The 36-year-old, however, is already planning for life after football as he eyes a coaching role with United's youth team in order to work with his son Cristiano Jr.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato claims Chelsea, Liverpool and Bayern Munich are interested in Juventus star Federico Chiesa, who has also been linked with Borussia Dortmund.

- Chelsea are preparing to make a big-money move for Juve centre-back Matthijs de Ligt after missing out on Sevilla star Jules Kounde, reports Diario AS.

- The Daily Mail says Arsenal and Tottenham are eyeing a January loan move for Barcelona misfit Philippe Coutinho.

- Staying in London and the Mirror claims Tottenham are considering an approach for Juve's Dejan Kulusevski.

Atletico Madrid are hoping to sign Fabian Ruiz from Napoli, according to Calciomercato. Determined to prise the Spain international, LaLiga champions Atletico could use Marcos Llorente as part of the deal. Fabian has also been linked with Real Madrid and Barca.

- Per Corriere della Serra, United, Chelsea and Juve are among the heavyweight clubs plotting a move for disgruntled Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who has found himself on the bench since joining on a free transfer.

 

Atletico Madrid head coach Diego Simeone absolved his misfiring attackers of any blame following Saturday's shock LaLiga defeat to Deportivo Alaves. 

Victor Laguardia scored the only goal four minutes in at Estadio de Mendizorroza to inflict a first defeat of the season on Atleti in all competitions. 

Atleti had just one shot on target – substitute Angel Correa forcing Fernando Pacheco into a fine save – as Simeone's side missed out on the chance to overtake leaders Real Madrid. 

The Spanish champions have now failed to find the net in three of their last four matches, during which time they have won only once in all competitions. 

Despite playing a full part against Alaves, who were previously without a point this term, Luis Suarez and recent signing Antoine Griezmann failed to complete a single pass between each other. 

Griezmann has yet to so much as register a shot on target in his last seven LaLiga outings for Atleti and Barcelona combined, his longest such run in the competition. 

Rather than criticise the likes of Suarez, Griezmann and Correa, Atleti boss Simeone instead insisted it was down to him to find a way to break down a solid Alaves team. 

"The responsibility is mine for not having found options to overcome their defence," he said at his post-match news conference. 

"When opposition teams defend well, it is difficult to find those solutions. 

"It's also difficult when a team like Alaves close you down. We didn't have the speed or ability to hurt them. They deserved the win because they scored and knew how to defend." 

 

Laguardia's early goal came from a set-piece situation, the centre-back getting away from Stefan Savic and heading in Ruben Duarte's corner. 

Half of the previous 10 goals conceded by Atletico in the league have now come via headers, excluding own goals, and Simeone accepted his side must improve in that area. 

"I don't think the defence is to blame for the defeat because the goal came from a set-piece," he said.  

"But if there's a weakness at the back, or when defending set-pieces, then it is clear we will have to study that, work on it and try to correct it. 

"We have to keep improving. We had several phases of patient play today and I believe in these players." 

Atleti's fixtures do not get any easier as they travel to Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday, then host Barcelona in the league four days later. 

Reflecting on a bad run of form heading into that huge double-header, Simeone added: "We always say there are bad moments during a season and this may be one of them. 

"We have a good squad, a balanced squad, and we will analyse what is going wrong and try to find solutions." 

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