The creation of a European Super League took a step closer to reality on Sunday as 12 leading clubs agreed plans for a new competition, according to widespread reports.

It is thought that up to six English clubs, three Italian sides and three Spanish teams have joined forces, with an announcement expected this weekend.

No clubs from Germany or France are involved, meaning reigning European champions Bayern Munich and last season's Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain are not included, though reports state the plan is for the competition to be expanded to 16-18 teams.

Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal are the Premier League teams said to have signed up, with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid representing LaLiga.

Juventus, Milan and their city rivals Inter are the Serie A clubs in the fold.

It has also been suggested PSG refused an invitation to the new competition, while one of the counter-threats supposedly put forward by UEFA was said to be the exclusion of the 12 teams from its competitions.

The news of this move by some of Europe's biggest clubs comes just before UEFA is set to confirm its intentions to alter the format of the Champions League.

According to reports in The Daily Mail, the Super League is being financed by United States-based investment bank JP Morgan.

The Mail also claim Madrid president Florentino Perez will likely act as chairman of the competition, with the American owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal – John W Henry, Joel Glazer and Stan Kroenke – acting as vice-chairmen. Juve chief Andrea Agnelli is to act as the fourth vice-chairman.

Antoine Griezmann accepts Lionel Messi's future is "not in our hands" but hopes Barcelona's inspirational captain can be convinced to remain at Camp Nou.

Messi was in typically brilliant form with a brace as Barca hammered Athletic Bilbao 4-0 to win the Copa del Rey on Saturday, the Blaugrana's first trophy under Ronald Koeman.

Griezmann had started the rout with the opening goal on the hour, with Frenkie de Jong doubling Barca's lead.

Messi's future at Los Cules, where he is the club's all-time leading goalscorer, remains the subject of debate with his contract up in June and Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain still rumoured to be interested in putting together a lucrative deal for the Argentina great.

Newly-re-elected president Joan Laporta spoke of his hope that Messi, who tried to engineer a move before the start of the campaign, will stay put and Griezmann echoed those sentiments.

"I think he's good here, we'll see what happens," Griezmann said in quotes reported by L'Equipe.

"It is not in our hands.  It is he who will decide, but we are proud and happy of the have with us and hope he will stay."

Griezmann joined Barca from Atletico Madrid in a big-money deal ahead of the 2019-2020 campaign. The Copa triumph represents the first trophy since he joined Barca but LaLiga success remains a realistic prospect, with only two points separating Koeman's third-placed side and leaders Atletico Madrid.

"I am very happy and very proud," he added. "I have been in the Spanish league for 10 years and I had not won the Copa del Rey.

"It's a relief, for the club and for me too, he said. There have been ups and downs since I arrived, sometimes negative comments, sometimes unfair, but it's like I have always worked and with the team we were focused on this game since we knew each other in the final."

Ronald Koeman has revelled in his first title as Barcelona head coach but set his sights on clinching the LaLiga crown.

Barcelona lifted the Copa del Rey with a 4-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in Saturday's final, marking the Dutchman's first title since taking over at Camp Nou in August.

The Catalans lost the Supercopa final to Bilbao in January and exited the Champions League in the last-16 to Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca are firmly in contention in the league, sitting third, two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid in a three-horse race with Real Madrid too.

"To win a title is important for me," Koeman said. "Despite the changes at the club and the young players, at Barca you have to always fight for trophies.

"We have the first one and now we are going to fight to the last game in La Liga."

Saturday's victory was earned with four second-half goals, with Antoine Grizemann breaking the deadlock on the hour mark.

Frenkie de Jong doubled their advantage on 63 minutes, before a Lionel Messi rounded out an emphatic win which Koeman said they deserved.

"A result like this is not normal, but we deserved the cup," Koeman said.

"It took us a bit to score, but we had chances. Our possession has been good and after 1-0 we have dominated the game with great football in every way."

The 58-year-old former Netherlands coach also heaped praise on De Jong and Messi for their leading role.

"De Jong and Messi are great players: Leo has been proving for so many years that he is the best in the world, he has returned to being effective, but we must also highlight Frenkie and the whole team," Koeman said.

"We have been at an extraordinary level. We deserve this cup."

Lionel Messi hailed the special achievement of captaining Barcelona to another trophy as president Joan Laporta backed the superstar forward to sign a new deal with the club.

The 33-year-old scored twice in Saturday's 4-0 Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic Bilbao after Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong had given Barca a two-goal lead.

With that double, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner made it a record nine goals in 10 appearances in the final of the competition to overtake Athletic great Telmo Zarra.

He has now scored the fourth most goals ever in the competition (56), meanwhile, behind Guillermo Gorostiza (64), Jose Samitier (69) and Zarra (81).

Messi's future remains a hot topic of debate with his contract due to expire at the end of the season, potentially making this seventh Copa triumph his last for the Catalan giants.

Barca were made to wait until the hour mark to find a way past opposition goalkeeper Unai Simon, but Messi is glad his side's patient approach to breaking down Athletic paid off.

"It's nice to lift a title. It's a very happy day for this group," Messi said. "It is very special to be the captain of this club. It is a very special cup for me to lift.

"We knew Athletic played this way, with a solid 4-4-2. We had patience with the ball and created spaces. We moved a lot in the first half and I think they fell in the second half.

"Not being able to celebrate it with our people, it's a shame. The situation is what we have to live in. The cups are always special and people enjoy them a lot."

Barca have enjoyed an upturn in form since the turn of the year and are two points off top spot in LaLiga, despite defeat to Real Madrid in last week's Clasico.

"It was difficult for us in the first half of the year. We lost a lot of silly points," Messi added. 

"Then we became strong, very good, and we got into the title fight. Last week, unfortunately, we couldn't get a good result from the Clasico."

Messi, who has now hit 30 or more goals for Barca in 13 successive seasons, has been touted as a possible target for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

However, recently elected club president Laporta remains confident that the Argentina international can be tempted to stay at Camp Nou beyond the end of this season.

"Leo is the best in the world, he is deeply rooted in the club," Laporta said. "I am convinced that he wants to stay and we will do everything in our power to make him stay.

"Today we have seen that he is supported by a great team."

The victory at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja marked the first piece of silverware won by Koeman since being appointed by Barcelona last August.

And like Laporta, Koeman is hopeful Barca's improved performances in 2021 will be enough to persuade Messi to put pen to paper on fresh terms.

"I hope it is not the last Messi's cup match with us, we want him to continue with us," Koeman said at his post-match news conference.

"You never know if it has been Leo's last final because it is he who must decide. As the president says, we will do our best to make him stay. 

"He has proven, once again, to be the best in the world. With enormous effectiveness, he has led the team."

It was all that was missing: a Lionel Messi goal. The rest of Saturday's Copa del Rey final was following a predictable, popular script.

Barcelona were winning. Athletic Bilbao were losing. Again.

For the second time this month, for the sixth time in succession, the final was a step too far for poor Athletic.

No club have won the Copa more times than Barca - this their 31st triumph - but for a long time that was a table topped by the team from Bilbao.

Athletic sit second on the list, with 23 wins, but none after 1983-84.

They beat Barca in the 1984 final at the Santiago Bernabeu and there has been nothing but misery for Athletic in their favourite competition ever since.

April 2021, with two opportunities, was surely the time for that run to end. But first they lost 1-0 to rivals Real Sociedad, and then, on Saturday, 4-0 to Barca. Again.

The run of six finals without a win is a new record, and four of the defeats have come at the hands of the Blaugrana.

And Messi had scored in each of the prior three.

 

Indeed, the Barca legend's very first final goal came against Athletic in 2009.

Messi played in Samuel Eto'o, saw his shot blocked and ran onto the rebound to put Pep Guardiola's side in front. They had trailed in that match and won 4-1, the first act of a stunning treble complete.

Three years later, the great number 10 was at it again.

He took Andres Iniesta's pass in his stride and rammed a right-footed finish into the roof of the net from a tight angle, the second of three Barca goals in the opening 25 minutes. A 3-0 win.

And then in 2015, perhaps Messi's best final performance of all. He scored twice and the first was one of the great goals.

The Barca forward took up possession near halfway on the left, invited in three Athletic defenders and then beat them all. Into the box he ran, skipping inside one last challenge before firing in.

So while losing to Barca - again - felt familiar for Athletic in Seville, keeping Messi at bay heading into the final quarter of the match did not.

 

Even then, from the fringes, Messi had still had a say in proceedings.

Following a tense first half in which the best opening saw Frenkie de Jong hit the post from Messi's pass, the Argentina international found his Netherlands counterpart again 15 minutes after the restart.

De Jong crossed and Antoine Griezmann, earlier denied from a similar position by the briefly inspired Unai Simon, made no mistake.

The second goal came from the other side. Jordi Alba crossed and Messi moved towards the ball, but it instead reached De Jong in the centre, stooping to nod into the net.

Messi had entered the match with 29 goals in 33 finals. His Copa record stood at seven in nine. With Athletic now all at sea, there was time left to boost those fantastic figures further.

Within five minutes of De Jong's header the chance came. Messi calmly controlled inside the area, created a yard of space and picked out the bottom-left corner with a gentle effort.

It was certainly a prettier goal than his next as Alba's cutback was sent goalwards and Simon, finally reading the script again, let Barca's fourth and Messi's second slip through his fingers - much like Athletic's hopes. Again.

Having helped their captain to a pair of goals to go away with, Barca's players made sure to secure souvenirs of their own as Messi posed for pictures with each of them alongside the Copa.

There is still a title to fight for in LaLiga before his contract expires at the end of the season and the rumour mill reopens for business, but this might have been Messi's last Barca showpiece.

On the periphery for over an hour, he wound up with a game-high six shots, three on target and two goals. If this was the end, Messi's final final, it was a fitting finish.

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona turned on the style in the second half to beat Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in Saturday's Copa del Rey final and win their first silverware under Ronald Koeman.

Barca were beaten 3-2 by Athletic in January's Supercopa de Espana final and they were kept at bay by the Basque club for an hour in this latest encounter at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja.

But Frenkie de Jong set up Antoine Griezmann for the crucial breakthrough goal and added the second himself three minutes later, before Messi took over with a couple of quickfire strikes as Barca made it a record-extending 31st Copa del Rey triumph.

It means yet more heartbreak for Athletic, though, after they were beaten 1-0 by Real Sociedad in the delayed 2019-20 final two weeks ago.

The snowfall that hit Madrid in February 2018 initially appeared worse than it was, with the seas of white that engulfed fields, pitches and gardens in Spain's capital clearing quicker than one might have expected.

It was enough to cause Real Madrid to cancel their training for the day on February 5, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo an unexpected day off on his birthday – though certain sections of the media were particularly critical of the club for essentially shutting down with a crucial Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain little more than a week away.

As it happened, Madrid went on to claim a third successive European crown, so the issue of a day off almost certainly won't have been raised again. However, it was this snowfall that proved a major disruption to the trial of a kid from the Canary Islands who was "about to sign", according to his father.

Pedri, 15 at the time, did not join Real Madrid. While he may have been shown the cold shoulder amid the snowfall, the midfielder subsequently signed with local side Las Palmas. And then Barcelona came calling.

Almost a year on from initially agreeing a deal with the Blaugrana, Pedri's presentation at Barca in August 2020 came at a particularly difficult time for the club, but those in the know were well aware that the teenager's arrival was a real coup.

Made for Barca

A diminutive, but effortlessly silky midfielder, it's little wonder Pedri linked up with Barca. "I have that Barca DNA," he said to EFE in his first major interview after his move was confirmed in 2019. "My desire is to resemble [Andres] Iniesta. I have always said he is my idol and he'll remain that until I die."

Pedri's rise was impressive. In a little over a year, he progressed through the Juvenil A, B and Division de Honor teams in Las Palmas' academy before being introduced into the first-team picture in 2019 for pre-season.

He quickly became an undisputed starter – he initially didn't expect to even reach the Division de Honor team in 2019-20.

Las Palmas had been cautious about showing him off too early, aware that such a talent would immediately attract offers. Instead, they reportedly waited until they had him secured to a professional contract with a €30million release clause and then promised they'd sell him to an interested party straight away.

Barca made their move in September 2019. An initial €6m could become €25m should Pedri meet certain criteria at Camp Nou – and at this point, few would bet against him.

Once again Real Madrid were left frustrated, with a second attempt to sign Pedri coming too late – not that they would have necessarily been successful otherwise, as the teenager's father is the president of a local Barcelona supporters' club, which his grandfather founded.

"Barca DNA" indeed.

"One in a million"

Pepe Mel was the coach who put his faith in Pedri back in 2019, the experienced tactician clearly stunned by the youngster's abilities.

"Look at this boy, because he's one in a million and he doesn't know it," Mel said at the time. "He will define a new era in Spanish football."

A bold prediction of one so young, but Pedri took to first-team football with immense comfort, his performances in the Segunda in 2019-20 suggesting he was ready for LaLiga straight away and that Mel's foretelling was on the money.

While he displayed the skillset to play virtually anywhere across the midfield for Las Palmas, by his own admission Pedri felt most effective in the centre where he can take the game to the opposition, exploit gaps in defences and dazzle with his close dribbling.

Despite his age, Pedri was a key player for Las Palmas last season, scoring four goals and setting up another six. Six of those goal involvements came in the first 10 matches of the campaign, highlighting there was a bit of a dip in terms of overall productivity – though he was still effective.

Despite missing a chunk of the 2019-20 campaign to take part in the Under-17 World Cup in October and November, Pedri played more league matches (36) than anyone else for Las Palmas and his 60 chances created was unmatched among team-mates. Only nine players in the entire league produced more key passes.

Nineteen Segunda players attempted more dribbles than Pedri's 108, but only three of those could better his 62 per cent completion rate.

And of 1,284 attempted passes, 80 per cent found a team-mate. While by no means a startling statistic on its own, context is key – many of those with better records on the face of it were central defenders or players operating in less-congested areas of the pitch than Pedri.

One thing was abundantly clear: Pedri was already operating at a high level for a 17-year-old, and with something of a new era sweeping over Camp Nou when he arrived in August, it perhaps wasn't a surprise to see him settle quickly.

It had initially been expected that Pedri would spend another season on loan in the second tier with Las Palmas, or move to Barca's B team had they been promoted to the Segunda.

Then he began attracting loan interest from LaLiga clubs, but in Ronald Koeman he found a coach ready to give him the opportunity.

He's certainly taken it.

Fitting the mould

While there was never any doubt about Pedri's technical abilities, adapting his game to fit in at a club with a style of play as iconic and ingrained as Barca's was likely – in theory – to take time. Regardless of how things work at Las Palmas, Barcelona are simply a different beast in every way, shape or form.

Yet, arguably the most impressive element of Pedri's breakout season is how quickly he's managed to immerse himself intrinsically in Barca's philosophy, so much so that talk of being "Iniesta's heir" doesn't sound quite so reactionary anymore, which in itself shows his progress.

The best way to showcase how he's adapted to life at Barca is by looking at sequence involvement data, which outlines how integral to a team's build-up play a certain player is.

 

The only midfielders involved in more passing sequences ending in a shot than Pedri (136) have been Nabil Fekir of Real Betis (143) and Barcelona's own Frenkie de Jong (152), both of whom have played considerably more minutes in LaLiga.

Pedri also ranks similarly high in terms of secondary chance creation – so, the pass to the player who sets up the subsequent shot – with Messi (64), Dani Parejo (37) and Fekir (36) the only individuals beating his 31.

 

When you also factor in that Pedri's 37 chances created this term puts him behind only Messi (65) and Jordi Alba (42) in the Barca team, this all highlights just how much influence the now 18-year-old already has on their general play.

Not only is he frequently teeing up shots himself, but he's one of Barca's most-involved players when it comes to retaining possession as they probe packed defences. And it's not as if Pedri is constantly offloading the ball once he has possession either - he has created eight chances following a carry (defined as a movement of at least five metres with the ball), the third most among central midfielders in LaLiga this term, evidence his ability on the ball also helps drive Barca forward and spark opportunities.

 

It's precisely these factors that make comparisons with Iniesta seem more sensible, particularly since Koeman recognised he'd be at his most effective in the middle.

But Pedri, who earned his first senior Spain caps last month, appears to have the quality to carve out his own lasting legacy at Camp Nou. A first experience of winning silverware in Saturday's Copa del Rey final will surely just be the start if Barca see off Athletic Bilbao.

Snow may have prevented a move to Madrid three years ago, but Pedri's outlook at Barcelona is gloriously bright.

A new defender appears to be at the forefront of Manchester United's planning.

The Premier League giants have been linked with a host of centre-backs.

But they could turn to a familiar club to bolster their defence.

 

TOP STORY – ANOTHER LEICESTER DEFENDER SET FOR OLD TRAFFORD?

Manchester United are eyeing Leicester City defender Wesley Fofana, according to Foot Mercato.

United are targeting a new partner for former Leicester star Harry Maguire – the world's most expensive centre-back – amid links to RB Leipzig's Ibrahima Konate, Sevilla's Jules Kounde, Villarreal defender Pau Torres and Real Madrid pair Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.

Fofana only joined Leicester from Saint-Etienne at the start of the season and is contracted until 2025.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano says Konate remains one of Liverpool's top transfer targets. Liverpool are reportedly preparing a five-year contract.

Arsenal are targeting Rennes and France sensation Eduardo Camavinga, reports Marca. The 18-year-old midfielder, who has already rejected a contract extension, has been linked with Madrid, United and Paris Saint-Germain.

- Inter's Martin Satriano is attracting interest from Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, PSG and Leipzig, claims the Daily Mail.

- Tottenham are considering a move for Barcelona's Emerson, says Mundo Deportivo. The 22-year-old is currently on loan at Real Betis amid links with Inter and PSG.

Atletico Madrid are eyeing Juventus sensation Nicolo Rovella and Udinese's Nahuel Molina, according to Mundo Deportivo.

- Gazzetta dello Sport reports Milan have enquired about Lille goalkeeper Mike Maignan as the Serie A side consider alternatives to Gianluigi Donnarumma should he fail to sign a contract extension. Meanwhile, SportItalia says Milan have offered Inter full-back Danilo D'Ambrosio a two-year deal. The Italian is out of contract at season's end.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta is "convinced" Lionel Messi will sign a new contract to stay with the LaLiga giants.

Messi is out of contract at the end of the season and the 33-year-old's future with Barca is far from certain amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

Laporta remains determined to re-sign Messi, who has spent his entire senior career at Camp Nou.

As Barca prepare for Saturday's Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, Laporta was asked about the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

"Everything is progressing adequately," Laporta told Deportes Cuatro.

"I will do everything within the club's capabilities to get him to stay. That's what we're doing. Messi is motivated.

"He is an extraordinary person and I am convinced that he will want to continue at Barca."

Messi has scored a league-high 23 goals and supplied eight assists in 28 LaLiga appearances for Barca this season.

In total, Messi has netted 29 goals across all competitions in 2020-21.

A bemused Ronald Koeman has described the constant speculation over his future as Barcelona head coach as "a little bit strange". 

It has been a tumultuous debut season for the former Netherlands boss, who arrived at Camp Nou on a two-year contract in August. 

First up, he had to manage the fallout from Lionel Messi's ultimately unsuccessful transfer request ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. 

A failure to get past the last-16 stage in the Champions League was a major disappointment, but a superb recent run in LaLiga has put them into title contention. 

They did suffer a first defeat since early December against Real Madrid in El Clasico last weekend, but they are just two points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid with eight games remaining. 

Up next is Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday and, speaking at a pre-match media conference, a clearly exasperated Koeman did not hold back when asked if failure to secure the trophy would result in his dismissal. 

"If you would like to hear my opinion about this, it's a little bit strange that I need to answer questions like this," he told reporters. 

"We had a run of 19 games without losing, we lose one match and I need to talk about my future. 

"Maybe I need to accept this, but I don't agree. You have to do your job and talk to people in the club. I have one more year of my contract. 

"I know before the game what will happen if we win and if we don't win. I have to accept it. I took this job as a coach and I know there's a big pressure and I can handle that. Sometimes it's a little bit strange."

Despite speculation that Koeman may not start next season as Barca boss, the club's new president Joan Laporta did offer public support to Koeman over his future after his victory in last month's election. 

Asked if he needs Laporta's backing again following the defeat to Madrid, Koeman said: "I don't need this. We have spoken and he has shown me his confidence.

"If someone writes that the coach's future is at risk, the president doesn't have to respond to that by showing confidence.

"I'm the first to know what Laporta thinks. At this club you need to win trophies, and despite the changes and the economic situation at the club, we're here at a final and we want to win it; speculation isn't important."

This will be the fourth meeting between the sides this season, with Barca winning both LaLiga clashes and Athletic securing a dramatic 3-2 triumph in the Supercopa de Espana in January. 

Pep Guardiola had a simple message for the fans after becoming Barcelona head coach in 2008: "Fasten your seatbelts."

In April 2011, the Catalan press recalled that promise of excitement as they previewed a once-in-a-generation event: four matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid, with three trophies at stake, in 17 days. A Clasico World Series. A defining run of fixtures where winning was everything and losing was unimaginable, with each side dreaming of celebrating a treble and terrified of watching the other do the same.

More like fasten your bandoliers. This was war.

On one side, the Barca of Guardiola, the man taking the coaching world by storm in his first senior post-playing job. A team built from La Masia, boasting some of the academy's greatest ever products: Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi. With the ball on their 'carousel', they were the pinnacle of possession-based attacking play, proof that technical accomplishment could triumph over brute force. They were chasing a second treble in three seasons, and under Guardiola, they had never lost a final.

It could be said Madrid were afraid of this new Barca, and in their fear, they made a deal with the devil. In came Jose Mourinho, the man whose Inter thwarted Barca's attempts to play a Champions League final at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2010. His task was not so much to knock the Catalans off their perch, but to raze the perch to the ground. A league champion in Portugal, England and Italy, the mastermind of Inter's historic treble, with two of history's most expensive signings in Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka at his disposal, Mourinho's task was clear: stop Barca at all costs.

For some, this went beyond the two best teams in the world going head-to-head for trophies. This was a meeting of minds, a clash of styles, a fight for football's very soul. And so, in the spring of 2011, the battle lines were drawn. On April 16, Barca were to host Madrid in La Liga. Four days later, they would meet neutrally at Valencia's Mestalla in the Copa del Rey final. Then came the biggest of all: a two-legged Champions League semi-final for the right to face Manchester United at Wembley.

Seven goals, 167 fouls, 24 yellow cards and four reds later, Barca emerged as Champions League finalists and shoo-ins for the La Liga title. Madrid held the Copa del Rey.

And neither team, nor coach, would ever be quite the same again.

April 16, 2011: Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona

The opening skirmish.

With Barca leading La Liga by eight points heading into the match, having won 26 and drawn three of their previous 29 top-flight games, few realistically believed a defeat would see them throw away the title. This was more of a warm-up act for what was to come, and the chance for Madrid – and Mourinho – to prove they had learned from the reverse fixture: a 5-0 evisceration at Camp Nou in November.

Certainly, there were changes. Madrid had just 33 per cent of the ball in the first game and that dropped to 24 per cent here, as they completed 234 passes to Barca's 791.

And yet they carried a much greater threat than before: They had more shots than Barca (13-11) and six on target, both the most they managed in any Clasico that term. Even after going a goal and a man down – Messi scoring a penalty after Raul Albiol was sent off for fouling David Villa – they salvaged a point after Ronaldo buried a spot-kick of his own.

Mourinho was starting to make his mark. Madrid committed 22 fouls, with Pepe accounting for five of them. Only Lassana Diarra conceded more free kicks in any of the four matches. There were seven bookings, five of them for Barca, whose frustrations with the Madrid approach were summed up neatly when Messi booted the ball into the stands. Only three players created more than one goalscoring chance: Xavi, Angel Di Maria… and Pepe.

For Mourinho, Albiol's red card was key. Although his side snatched a draw, they seemed at the mercy of the Barca circulation machine: 10 of Guardiola's players managed more than 30 passes, including substitute Seydou Keita, while only Sami Khedira (31) did so for Madrid. Xavi, who made 144 on his own, would average 139 per game across the four encounters.

"Eleven against 10 and it was practically mission impossible," said Mourinho. "Especially against a team that – with possession of the ball – are the best in the world."

The title race was out of Madrid's hands. However, in a one-off contest, things looked different…

 

April 20, 2011: Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid

"We knew that whoever scored first would win it," said Mourinho. "And so it proved."

Ronaldo's 42nd goal of the season, a towering header from Di Maria's cross, was enough to decide a cup final spanning 120 gruelling minutes in Valencia. It was Ronaldo and Mourinho's first Madrid trophy, Guardiola's first final defeat, and an end to his dreams of a second treble.

It was also a doubling-down by Mourinho on his pervading methods. Madrid allowed Barca 79 per cent of the ball with the Catalans' 901 passes nearly four times as many as their opponents managed. Concrete opportunities, again, were scarce: there were just four shots on target each from a total of 27.

This time, Barca got sucked into the fight. They committed 24 fouls, their most in any Clasico that season, with each side earning three bookings apiece, and Di Maria was sent off in the dying moments. Their more combative approach neither improved Barca's play nor disrupted Madrid further; however, Los Blancos created nine chances in the contest, only one fewer than Barca, despite yielding so much of the possession.

"Life is like that – you can't always win," Guardiola rued. "We can take them on over two games – we've just done that," goaded Mourinho. And the world waited for what would come next.

April 27, 2011: Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona

The drama started on the eve of the match when Guardiola finally snapped.

His rant at Mourinho, "the f****** boss," was his most public display of anger, his patience exhausted by his opponent's needling. The final straw had been Mourinho describing Pep as a unique coach "that criticises referees when they get decisions right".

In that explosive news conference delivered mostly to "Mourinho's camera", Guardiola promised: "Tomorrow, 8.45 p.m., we will take to the field and we will try to play football as best as possible."

One man certainly did.

Messi had struggled to exert huge influence in the first two games. He had only one shot on target in the cup final, for instance. He was harried, kicked and crowded out at the Santiago Bernabeu this time, and yet won only two free-kicks as Barca committed more fouls than their opponents for the first time. It seemed Mourinho's mind games were paying off.

This, perhaps foreshadowed in the pregame build-up involving their managers, was the most ill-tempered, poisonous game of the lot. There were three red cards shown: one to Barca substitute Jose Pinto, one to Pepe for a foul on Dani Alves, and one to Mourinho for his sarcastic praise of the officials. Again, though, Madrid's 10 men looked capable of salvaging a result, until Messi was unleashed at last. His first was a relative tap-in, a close-range finish from Ibrahim Afellay's cross. It is a goal that is easily forgotten due to what came after. Busquets rolled the ball into his path, and Messi was off – away from Diarra, away from Albiol, beyond Marcelo, before squeezing a low finish past Iker Casillas.

It was his 11th goal in 11 Champions League games, his 52nd of the season, and perhaps the greatest he has ever scored: for the occasion, the speed, the execution, the kicks that failed to stop him.

May 3, 2011: Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid

Everyone, it seemed, felt the tie was already over. Madrid decided to prioritise chasing Barca players over chasing the game, committing 30 fouls for the return of a single shot on target. At least nobody was sent off.

Gonzalo Higuain thought he had given Madrid the lead, but it was disallowed for a foul by Ronaldo in the build-up. Marcelo cancelled out Pedro's eventual opener, but it was Barca who went through – and Madrid who went apoplectic.

"We feel tricked by the officials," Casillas said afterwards.

"Next year, they might as well give the cup to Barcelona," complained Ronaldo.

Mourinho was facing possible punishment for suggesting referees favoured the Blaugrana, while both teams vowed to make official complaints to UEFA about the other.

The battle was done, the hostilities over (on the pitch, at least). Crucially, though, the events of these matches hardened Mourinho's resolve. "Now I have more willingness to continue in charge of Real Madrid for what this means," he said. "This jersey is white, and white now has more significance."

 

The aftermath

Over those two spectacular weeks, the teams shared two draws and one win apiece. Barca, though, were the victors: a third league title in a row and a second Champions League triumph under Guardiola easily made up for losing the Copa final.

Mourinho, however, would not lose the war.

These games, and the 5-4 two-legged Supercopa de Espana defeat in August – one made infamous by Mourinho poking Barca assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye – showed the Portuguese the way to conquer Spain: disrupt Barca and destroy the rest. His players seemed galvanised, and they proved it.

In 2010-11, Barca finished on 96 points, four ahead of Madrid. Interestingly, they only scored 95 goals to their rivals' 102, while conceding 12 goals fewer. They lost just two games to Madrid's four.

Mourinho's response was to develop Madrid not into a team impossible to beat, but one that could barely stop winning. Records tumbled in 2011-12: 32 victories from 38 games, 121 goals scored, 100 points accrued. His Faustian pact with Madrid had paid off, but those vitriolic two campaigns took their toll. He has had three times as many job changes as league titles in the decade since.

Barca also scored more that season: 114 times in the league overall, 50 of which came from Messi. Overall, though, their exceptional standards had slipped just enough. After three intense seasons under Guardiola and the brutality of El Clasico's rivalry, they just couldn't sustain it any longer. At the end of the season, Guardiola announced he was stepping down, admitting: "Four years is an eternity as Barca coach… I have nothing left."

Erling Haaland might be too expensive a purchase for some of football's richest clubs. 

The Borussia Dortmund sensation is on everyone's wish list.

The question is who will be willing to meet his reported demands?

 

TOP STORY - LALIGA GIANTS PRICED OUT OF HAALAND MOVE?

Haaland's apparent desire for a €35million annual salary has the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid thinking twice about a potential move, Goal reported. 

The prolific 20-year-old's agent, Mino Raiola, has held informal discussions with both LaLiga stalwarts but the sides did not get into specifics about finances. 

For now it appears Barca and Madrid are content to wait it out and see how Haaland's market unfolds. 

That is not the case for another potential suitor. According to Goal, an unnamed English club that made inquiries about the Leeds-born striker earlier this year has backed away from talks due to that salary figure. 

The mystery team is not Chelsea, who consider Haaland their top target according to an Evening Standard report. 

 

ROUND-UP

- While the Blues can hope to land the high-flying Norwegian, Timo Werner may be on the way out. Though the Evening Standard reports Chelsea have not yet seriously discussed selling him, it is not clear how he fits into the Blues' strike force at the moment.

Gianluigi Donnarumma is out of contract with AC Milan this summer and has had talks with Juventus, per La Gazzetta dello Sport.

- Manchester United have coveted Nikola Milenkovic and may be ready to make a move for the Fiorentina defender, though The Sun says United would not be interested at the rumoured £38m fee. 

- United also want Edinson Cavani to have another season at Old Trafford, but at age 34 he might want to move closer to home. Boca Juniors would offer him a two-year deal, says Fabrizio Romano. 

- Watford are prepared to bring Ashley Young back to the club should they return to the Premier League next season, the Daily Mail says. Young's contract with Inter is expiring.

- After a loan spell with Paris Saint-GermainAlessandro Florenzi could be in line to play in Italy with Inter next season rather than returning to Roma, La Gazzetta dello Sport reported. 

- Luis Suarez appears likely to remain with Atletico Madrid, but there is a possibility he could rekindle last year's reported talks with David Beckham's Inter Miami. The American side's interest in the Uruguayan "has not stopped," according to Mundo Deportivo. 

- One player not headed anywhere is Karim Benzema, who Marca reports will sign to remain with Real Madrid through 2023.

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino said he will "fight with all my energies" to keep Real Madrid target Kylian Mbappe in the French capital.

Mbappe has long been tipped to join LaLiga champions Madrid, though PSG remain in contract negotiations with the star forward.

The World Cup-winning France international is contracted to PSG until 2022 and Pochettino is confident Mbappe will remain in Paris, where team-mate Neymar has been linked with a return to Barcelona.

"Mbappe to Real Madrid? I'll fight with all my energies to keep Kylian here at PSG," Pochettino told El Larguero.

"PSG are doing everything possible to keep Neymar and Mbappe.

"I am equally optimistic that Mbappe will stay. They both have a huge commitment."

While there are long-term doubts over Mbappe and Neymar, PSG have been linked with blockbuster moves for superstar Barca captain Lionel Messi and Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos.

Messi and Ramos are both out of contract at the end of the season and their futures remain uncertain.

PSG – through to the Champions League semi-finals against Manchester City after eliminating holders Bayern Munich – have reportedly emerged as strong suitors for six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi and Spain centre-back Ramos.

"Surely soon it will be known what happens with Leo Messi future and contract," Pochettino said.

Pochettino added: "Sergio Ramos? I don't like to talk about players who are not in my team.

"There are a lot of rumours... here at PSG we're working to improve the team."

Cristiano Ronaldo's future beyond this season has been a hot topic of discussion.

The 36-year-old Portuguese forward appears set to exit Juventus after three seasons in Turin, despite being contracted for another year.

Ronaldo has been linked with former club Real Madrid and a switch to the United States, but there may be another option.

 

TOP STORY – RONALDO IN UTD-JUVE SWAP DEAL

Manchester United want to sign Cristiano Ronaldo this off-season and would consider a swap deal with Juventus for Paul Pogba, according to Calciomercato.

Ronaldo played for United from 2003 to 2009 in the earlier part of his career, making almost 300 appearances for the Red Devils before his blockbuster move to Real Madrid.

Pogba, who spent time at Juventus from 2012 to 2016, has also been the subject of transfer speculation.

Juventus have this week been linked with a mega swap deal with United as they look for a transfer shake-up this off-season.

ROUND-UP

- The Independent reports Harry Kane's preference, if he was to leave Tottenham, is to remain in England and join either United or Manchester City.

- Juve forward Paulo Dybala has attracted interest from Premier League pair United and Chelsea, claims Tuttosport.

- United are also keen on an off-season move for Madrid defender Raphael Varane, according to The Mail. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United have also been linked with Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate, Sevilla star Jules Kounde and Villarreal defender Pau Torres.

- The Daily Mail reports Bayern Munich are bullish they can sign Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland as Robert Lewandowski's heir if he remains in Germany for one more season amid widespread interest this upcoming off-season. Haaland has been heavily linked with City, United, Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

- Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira is wanted by Argentine giants Boca Juniors, reports TyC Sports. Torreira is currently on loan at Atletico Madrid.

Neymar said his contract renewal with Paris Saint-Germain is "no longer an issue" as the star pledged his future to the Ligue 1 giants following their Champions League progress.

PSG forward Neymar – who arrived from Barcelona for a world-record €222million in 2017 – is contracted until 2022 but both parties have been in negotiations regarding a fresh deal in the French capital.

Neymar has continually been linked with a return to LaLiga powerhouse Barca, but the Brazil international confirmed his intentions to re-sign with PSG.

"This [renewal with PSG] is no longer an issue," Neymar told ESPN Brazil after PSG eliminated holders Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals.

"Obviously I feel very comfortable and at home here at PSG. I feel happier than I was before."

PSG lost 1-0 in the return leg on Tuesday, but they still advanced on away goals after the blockbuster tie ended 3-3.

Neymar was named man of the match after he had more shots (six), more shots on target (three) and made more key passes (three) than any other PSG player, hitting the crossbar and then the post during the first half.

After PSG moved through to their second successive Champions League semi-final, Neymar celebrated with team-mate Leandro Paredes in front of Bayern star Joshua Kimmich.

"It's funny because I didn't even celebrate to mess with him, it was more with Leo and I ended up celebrating with him. It was fate that put me close to [Kimmich]," Neymar said.

"He said that their team was better, that they would win. He was sure that they would go to the semi-finals."

PSG's elimination of Bayern is the first instance in Champions League history of the previous season's losing finalists eliminating the holders in the knockout stages.

French giants PSG have reached the semi-finals for the second season in a row, after managing to reach the final four only once in their previous 11 campaigns in the competition before that – their first in 1994-95.

PSG, though, failed to score at home in the Champions League for the first time in 24 games, since a 0-0 draw with Madrid in October 2015.

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