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.

Barcelona were handed a tough draw against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semi-finals as Ronald Koeman chases his first trophy since being appointed head coach.

The two-leg tie will be a repeat of the teams' memorable meeting at the quarter-final stage two years ago, when Sevilla won 2-0 at home before being thrashed 6-1 at Camp Nou.

Koeman, who took charge last August, saw his side beaten 3-2 in the Supercopa de Espana final by Athletic Bilbao in January, when Lionel Messi was sent off in extra time.

That silverware slipped by but the Dutch coach will hope for a better outcome for Barcelona as the Copa del Rey enters its final stages.

They were almost knocked out in the quarter-finals this week by Granada, saved by late goals in normal time from Antoine Griezmann and Jordi Alba before winning 5-3 after extra time.

Facing Sevilla will surely be no easy task given Barca, second in LaLiga, are just a point ahead of Julen Lopetegui's team.

There could be another final between Barcelona and Athletic in store, with the Bilbao giants drawn to face Levante in the other semi-final.

The first legs of each tie will be played next midweek, with the return games to be played on the first midweek in March, with exact dates for each match to be determined.

Sevilla will have extra incentive to reach the final, given that match will be staged in their home city on April 17, at Estadio La Cartuja.

Because of the coronavirus impact on Spanish football, last season's Copa del Rey final has yet to be played, with that game between Athletic and Real Sociedad to be played at the same Seville stadium on April 3.

Barcelona hold the record for the most Copa del Rey titles, having won the competition 30 times, with Athletic next on the list with 23 victories.

Barcelona forward Antoine Griezmann labelled Lionel Messi a "legend" after the superstar captain dominated headlines on Sunday.

After details of Messi's Barca contract were reported by El Mundo earlier in the day, the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored another landmark goal as the embattled LaLiga giants beat Athletic Bilbao 2-1.

Messi opened the scoring with a 20th-minute free-kick – his 650th goal for Barca – before Jordi Alba's own goal restored parity, though Griezmann secured maximum points 16 minutes from the end.

After El Mundo claimed the deal Messi signed at Camp Nou in 2017 – which expires at the end of the season – is worth more than €555million, Griezmann was asked about the 33-year-old's value.

"We are enjoying Messi, he's a legend," Griezmann told Movistar.

"Hopefully we can keep enjoying him and he can keep helping us win."

Messi – tipped to leave Barca amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City – has scored two direct free-kick goals from his last four attempts for Barcelona in all competitions, after scoring just one from his previous 62 attempts.

Of Messi's 650 goals for Barcelona, 49 of them have been direct free-kicks – 38 in LaLiga.

Messi has 12 goals and two assists in the league for Barca, who are second and 10 points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid.

Griezmann's late winner for Barca maintained his superb record against Athletic.

The France international has now been involved in 15 goals against the Basque side (nine goals and six assists), more than he has achieved against any other team in the competition.

Ronald Koeman said Barcelona "can't aspire to much" without Lionel Messi after the Argentinian scored another landmark goal in Sunday's 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Messi was headline news earlier in the day when a report by El Mundo claimed the deal he signed at Camp Nou in 2017, which expires at the end of this season, is worth more than €555million.

He proved his worth to Barca with a fine free-kick midway through the first half - his 650th goal for the club - before Jordi Alba's own goal drew Athletic level early in the second half.

Antoine Griezmann secured all three points with the winner 16 minutes from time, though, to help Barca leapfrog Sevilla and Real Madrid into second in LaLiga, 10 points behind leaders Atletico Madrid.

Head coach Koeman was less than impressed with the details of Messi's contract surfacing, but insists the saga did not provide any additional motivation for a player he believes is the world's best.

"We've known, for quite some time, that he's the best in the world," the former Netherlands coach told Movistar Plus.

"He's done a lot for the club. He's decisive during games. You have to respect everything he's done. He's a great player, he gives us creativity in attack. Without Leo, you can't aspire to much."

Koeman added, according to Marca: "He hasn't been more motivated today [because of the reports]. What's happened has been for bad intentions, to cause harm.

"We have to be united and focused. Things that are published have to be put to the side, but it's tough."

It seems unlikely that Barca will rein in Atletico, who can move 13 points clear if they win their game in hand, but Koeman says his improving side have no intention of giving up hope of claiming the title.

"The team is improving," Koeman added. "There's concentration, mentality. I'm not saying we didn't have that before, but we're growing in confidence.

"It's important to be second. We want to be as high as possible. The gap to the leaders is big but we have to keep going."

Griezmann's late winner maintained his superb record against Athletic.

The France international has now been involved in 15 goals against the Basque side (nine goals and six assists), more than he has achieved against any other team in the competition.

The former Atletico Madrid forward was pleased to overcome an obdurate opponent and had words of praise for Ousmane Dembele, whose fine pass played in Oscar Mingueza in the build-up to the winning goal.

Griezmann told Movistar Plus: "Sometimes you play and sometimes you don't but in the end we are all part of this and we need everyone. Ousmane is playing very well, he is taking good care of himself and we try to ensure that he is in the best condition."

Lionel Messi showed exactly why he was given a lucrative contract as his 650th Barcelona goal helped Ronald Koeman's side to a slender 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.

A report by El Mundo claimed the deal Messi signed at Camp Nou in 2017, which expires at the end of this season, is worth more than €555million.

He demonstrated his value to this Barca team midway through the first half on Sunday with his 49th successful free-kick strike for the Catalan giants.

Jordi Alba put through his own net early in the second half to draw Athletic level, but Antoine Greizmann ensured Barca leapfrogged Sevilla and Real Madrid into second - 10 points behind leaders Atletico Madrid - with a close-range finish 16 minutes from time.

Unai Simon twice denied Barca inside the opening seven minutes, first pawing away Messi’s clipped effort from close range before diverting Griezmann’s powerful drive over the crossbar.

There was little the Athletic goalkeeper could do to deny Messi after 20 minutes, the Argentinian whipping a sumptuous free-kick into the top right corner from 25 yards.

Ronald Araujo fizzed an effort wide soon after, while Ousmane Dembele lashed over from a promising position shortly before the interval as Barca dominated.

Athletic drew level four minutes after the interval, however, as Alba turned Raul Garcia's left-wing cross into his own net under pressure from Oscar De Marcos at the back post.

Simon superbly kept out Miralem Pjanic's header shortly before the hour mark, while Griezmann nodded wide from Dembele's teasing cross.

The France international had the final say, though, sliding home Oscar Mingueza's low cross into the roof of Simon's net to seal a fourth consecutive win in all competitions for Barca.

Lionel Messi scored his 650th goal for Barcelona with a sumptuous free-kick against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

The Argentina international whipped a shot into goalkeeper Unai Simon's top-left corner from 25 yards midway through the first half to put Barca 1-0 up in their LaLiga clash at Camp Nou.

Messi was in the headlines earlier in the day when leaked details of his eye-watering contract emerged.

A report by El Mundo claimed the deal Messi signed in 2017, which expires at the end of this season, is worth more than €555million.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored his first goal for Barca in May 2005 at the age of 17, beautifully lobbing Albacete goalkeeper Raul Valbuena.

He has gone on to become far and away the club's record scorer, overtaking Cesar Rodriguez's previous mark of 232 in 2012.

Barcelona are not ready to win the biggest trophies and fans must be "realistic" about their title chances, head coach Ronald Koeman said.

The Catalans face Athletic Bilbao on Sunday for the first time since suffering defeat to Marcelino's side in the final of the Supercopa de Espana.

Barca go into the match 10 points behind LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, who have a game in hand. Their tally of 37 points from their first 19 matches is their lowest return at this stage of a season since 2003-04.

According to a Stats Perform AI model run last week, Barca had just a 12.4 per cent likelihood of winning LaLiga, with Atletico overwhelming favourites at 75.1 per cent.

Having won just twice in their past seven meetings with Athletic in all competitions, the pressure is on Barca and Koeman to deliver to keep their slim hopes of a title challenge intact.

However, the former Netherlands boss feels this has been a year of transition for the club that means they should not aim too high.

"It's tough, because the points gap is very big," he said on Saturday. "In the Champions League, there's no clear favourite. We have a knockout against Paris Saint-Germain that we'll try to get through.

"I have said several times that this is a season where we are changing things, we are opting for young players.

"Barcelona are not about to win a lot of things right now. We have to be realistic about where we've come from, the changes we've made... not everything depends on one player. We always have to be ready to fight, but we have to be realistic."

With Barca having reported debts of close to €1.2billion and with presidential elections not taking place until March, January signings have been practically impossible.

The club remain hopeful, however, of bringing in Eric Garcia from Manchester City this month. The defender has already agreed to a deal with the club but they are exploring options to sign him in the coming days rather than wait for a free transfer at the end of the season, when his City contract expires.

"It's always important to have someone at the club working to improve our squad, if not in January for next year," Koeman said.

"It doesn't bother me because it's a job the club has to do. The players don't have to be bothered by these issues, because we talk to them every day, they take part in the games.... These things happen at any club in the world and I don't see any problem.

"We'll certainly have him [Garcia] for next season. If it's not possible for him to come now, we have to accept it and we'll keep going with what there is.

"But I don't know. I don't want to spend energy on this and I'm just focused on preparing the team for the games.

"I spoke to [City manager] Pep [Guardiola] a little while ago to wish him a happy 50th birthday. We talked, but we don't do so on Eric Garcia. That's not my job. I'm dedicated to coaching.

"I think it's normal that it's talked about so much because it's a transfer and because of the circumstances around the club. I've said what I thought, but what ends up happening is something I can't control, so I'm focused on what's important, which is trying to win games."

Barcelona have been drawn away to Granada in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.

Ronald Koeman's team fought back to defeat second-tier Rayo Vallecano 2-1 on Wednesday, earning their place in the last eight after a major scare.

Barca will now have to face a LaLiga team in Granada, a side they defeated 4-0 at Los Carmenes earlier this month.  

Sevilla, who have not won the competition since 2010, will play away to Almeria, the last team from outside the top flight left in the tournament.

Real Betis will take on Athletic Bilbao, who are yet to play Real Sociedad in the final of last season's Copa, while the other match will see Levante host Villarreal.

Ties will be played across next week from Tuesday to Thursday, with Barca favourites to win it after Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid were eliminated against lower-league opposition.

Even in these extraordinary times, Barcelona letting Luis Suarez go to Atletico Madrid is starting to look like the oddest decision of the season.

Suarez's double over Eibar on Thursday secured a 2-1 victory for the league leaders, who are seven points clear at the top with a game in hand over champions Real Madrid in second.

The Uruguay star, who has netted six in his past six league games for Atleti, is joint-top of the division's scoring charts alongside former team-mate Lionel Messi.

It seems increasingly likely that Suarez, and certainly Atletico, will be at the top of the tree come the end of 2020-21.

With the majority of sides having now played half of their matches, the Stats Perform AI team have run the numbers to simulate how the rest of the LaLiga campaign will play out – and it's good news for Diego Simeone.

 

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

 

ATLETICO WIN AT A CANTER

Atletico have been given a 75.1 per cent chance of winning LaLiga, according to the model.

Simeone's men are predicted to finish on 86 points, nine clear of the rest of the field. They are given just a 17.8 per cent chance of coming second and dropping outside the top four is considered practically impossible.

Barcelona and reigning champions Real Madrid are predicted to end with 77 points apiece, with just a 12.4 per cent chance each of pipping Atleti to the title. Madrid have a 41 per cent chance of finishing second, slightly above Barca's 39.4, having beaten Ronald Koeman's side 3-1 in the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou last October.

Those two are, at least, very likely to end up in a Champions League place. They are expected to be joined there by Sevilla, who have a 47.8 per cent chance of finishing fourth on 65 points, just three above Villarreal and six clear of Real Sociedad. The remaining European spot is predicted to be a close battle between Granada, Getafe and Real Betis, with Diego Martinez's men odds on to snatch it.

Valencia fans might be enduring a difficult time (again), and our sim has Los Che missing out on European football once more, if only by four points. That said, they still have a 3.6 per cent chance of a Europa League spot, which is better odds than those given to Supercopa de Espana winners Athletic Bilbao.

 

WOE FOR HUESCA

At the other end of a relatively tight table, in which just 11 points will separate seventh from 16th, it looks like Huesca are in for a tough run-in. They are given a 59.7 per cent chance of finishing bottom of the pile and just a 5.1 per cent shot at avoiding relegation, having won only once so far this term.

Osasuna are predicted to end up just four points above them, with the bottom three likely to be completed by Deportivo Alaves, although Elche will also be right in the mix. In fact, with those two tipped to finish level on 39 points, survival could come down to their head-to-head record, making their showdown on May 11 potentially decisive. Elche have the advantage there, having won the reverse game 2-0 away from home.

Real Valladolid are expected to have just enough to stay out of trouble, although they have scant room for manoeuvre, with our predictor giving them an equal 15.1 per cent chance of finishing 17th and 18th.

Eibar and Cadiz are looking likely to stay safe; indeed, Jose Luis Mendilibar's men, along with Celta Vigo and Athletic, are given a 0.1 per cent chance of gatecrashing the top four. They might well have boosted those odds this week were it not for that pesky Suarez.

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.

 

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."

Inaki Williams was proud of his match-winning strike against Barcelona in the Supercopa de Espana final, labelling it the best goal of his career.

Williams was the hero for Athletic, who upstaged Barca 3-2 after extra time thanks to his 93rd-minute goal in Seville on Sunday.

Barca star Antoine Griezmann had opened the scoring in the 40th minute, but Williams teed up Oscar de Marcos for the equaliser two minutes later at Estadio de La Cartuja.

Griezmann struck again with 13 minutes remaining before Athletic substitute Asier Villalibre forced extra time at the death, and Williams completed the shock result in the 93rd minute as Barca captain Lionel Messi saw red.

It secured a third Supercopa crown for Athletic – who shocked Real Madrid in the semi-final – and their first since routing Barca 5-1 across two legs in 2015, and Williams basked in his decisive goal after curling a shot away from Marc-Andre ter Stegen and into the top-right corner.

"For what it means, it's the best [goal of my career]," Williams told Movistar after becoming the only player this season to score and assist in a game against Barca across all competitions.

"We played good football, [a symptom of what] the coach wants from us.

"We fought, with passion, that's what Athletic is. I think we're fair winners. It's everyone's doing, including the previous technical team.

"We can dream of achieving big things."

Williams added: "No words needed. We all know how hard is to compete versus Barcelona because of their potential and the signing market they have whilst we have a limitation on it.

"In the previous days I have kept reading this Bible quote: David can beat Goliath. Today it was just like that. When you play with heart and faith, impossible is nothing. Today we worked and fought like animals and our effort was rewarded. Sometimes you don't get a reward but thank God it was all good today and we fully deserve this Supercopa."

Marcelino also lifted the trophy, having replaced Gaizka Garitano as Athletic head coach earlier this month.

Per Opta, Marcelino is the first head coach in history to win two one-legged finals in a row against Barcelona in all competitions, triumphing with two different teams after Valencia's 2019 Copa del Rey success.

"I've been in Bilbao for only a short time, but the truth is that it's been productive," Marcelino said via Marca.

"The credit goes to the players who, with the work they put in last year, deserve to be here. And they won two games to be champions against Real Madrid and Barcelona.

"I'd also like to remember Aritz Aduriz, Mikel San Jose and Benat Etxebarria, players here last season, as well as the coaching staff, of course.

"We came with all the humility in the world to work – taking advantage of what was done before while trying to install concepts that we want to add.

"[The players] are like sponges, and it's incredible how they fight and work. [Us as a coaching staff] are very proud and enjoy working with them because they make it so easy for us."

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