Lionel Messi will remain at Barcelona until the end of his career after president Joan Laporta's efforts in revitalising the club.

That is the view of former Barca full-back Gianluca Zambrotta, who believes the Messi transfer saga will be laid to rest once and for all.

It had looked likely Messi would leave, probably for Manchester City, at the start of this campaign but a dispute over the terms of his contract at Camp Nou proved a stumbling block too far.

The Argentina star has since helped Ronald Koeman's side win the Copa del Rey and they remain in the battle for LaLiga, sitting two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, who they face on Saturday. 

And Zambrotta, who played for the club between 2006 and 2008, feels Barca now represent a more attractive proposition for Messi since Laporta's election as president for a second time in March.

"They won already an important title in Spain and this is already something," the former Italy international told Stats Perform.

"They are in contention for La Liga title. On Saturday there will be the game versus Atletico Madrid, they are just two points down with Real Madrid, so Barcelona are a team that's still up there regardless of any problem.

"They have the chance to win La Liga too, although it will be a fight until the end.

"I see Barcelona as an improved team in recent months. Laporta has brought enthusiasm and made the place a bit more serene with the aim of keeping their most important player, Messi."

Asked if Barca will achieve that aim, he replied: "I guess so, Messi will never leave Barcelona unless in a distant future he will like to go back to Argentina, but I doubt it.

"I think he will stay at Barcelona until the end of his career."

Ronald Koeman believes there is something personal behind the decision to hand him a touchline ban.

Barcelona confirmed this week they are to appeal to Spain's Administrative Court of Sport (TAD) after head coach Koeman's ban for Saturday's potential LaLiga title decider with Atletico Madrid was upheld by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF).

Koeman was hit with a two-match suspension after being shown a red card for comments made to the fourth official during his side's shock 2-1 home loss to Granada last Thursday.

Barcelona had hoped to have Koeman back for the massive game at Camp Nou, but it was announced on Wednesday that their appeal was not successful, prompting the club to try again with TAD.

"Yes, I think it was personal," said Koeman.

"Because saying 'what a character' in Spanish or 'what a person' in English is not insulting. 

"It is not a reason to sanction. So yes, there is something else behind it.

"Better not talk about the referees because, in general, the RFEF puts one of the best referees in for these games. 

"It is hoped that he [Mateu Lahoz] gets his decisions right, but you don't have to think about the referees. You have to think about yourself and plan.

"Hopefully the decisions of the VAR are fair for us and for Atletico."

Barca go into the match at Camp Nou two points behind leaders Atletico, with Real Madrid also trailing Diego Simeone's men by that margin in a thrilling title race.

Ahead of the crunch clash, Barca confirmed Ansu Fati's injury comeback has hit another setback, as the Spain forward had to undergo another knee operation, his fourth procedure.

Fati suffered a serious meniscus injury in November, having scored five goals across 10 appearances for Barca across all competitions.

The 18-year-old was initially forecast to return in March, but his long spell on the sidelines and problems with his injury had even led some to question whether Fati would be able to have a long career in the game.

"Poor kid," said Koeman. "I have not yet spoken with Ansu. I did speak with him before his trip to Porto [for the operation].

"It takes a long time and there are things that have not gone well with his recovery - I don't want to go into that anymore, but five or six months is a long time.

"Now the most important thing is that he is going to recover, he is going to get well and that he will be with us. Too bad it is for next season.

"It has been important that we missed a player like him, but the most important thing is that he recovers well to continue playing."

 

Koeman knows the stakes are high in the title race and Barcelona have a good record against their opponents, losing just one of their 21 previous LaLiga games against Atletico, winning 14.

"I have not changed my mind; if we win every game we will be champions," he said of the four remaining league fixtures.

"I don't think it [this result] is decisive because there will be three games left, but of course it is important. It is not decisive.

"They are both very good teams and we are fighting with two more teams as well [Real Madrid and Sevilla]. 

"We have to be good with the ball because Atletico closes well and defends well. We have to be good with the ball to create opportunities and be effective."

Barca are looking to avoid losing home and away in the league against Atleti for the first time since 2005-06, Simeone's men having won 1-0 in the last meeting in November.

But aside from that rare blip against Granada, Koeman's side have the momentum. They have collected a league-high 49 points in 2021 (W16 D1 L2), eight more than Atletico in this period.

Lionel Messi has scored 20 goals (excluding penalties) in LaLiga in 2021, vastly outperforming an expected goals figure of 11.

Opta data shows he has the biggest positive differential (nine) for any player in the top five European leagues since the start of year.

So we come to it: the biggest LaLiga game between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid for seven years.

Forget the Champions League disappointments, the off-the-field murmurings about money problems and the lingering toxic cloud of the Super League, and get ready for a title showdown.

League leaders Atletico are two points clear of Real Madrid and Barca with four games to go. If the match produces a winner, that team will have the power to decide their own fate. A draw could be enough for Atleti. A defeat for either may prove fatal to their chances.

The last time these two teams met this late in the season with the title still on the line for both was on that famous final day in 2013-14, when Atleti went to Camp Nou knowing they would win the league if they did not lose the match. Alexis Sanchez broke the deadlock, Diego Godin equalised, and Atleti were crowned kings of Spain for the first time in 18 years.

Nothing will be decided this season on Saturday, of course, and as any LaLiga coach will tell the media at any given opportunity, "every game is a final". But this one feels a bit different. With Madrid and fourth-place Sevilla meeting this weekend, too, Barca and Atleti must sense this is a massive chance to get a hand on the trophy.

 

FORM IS TEMPORARY...

For the neutral, the fact we even have a title race in early May is something to celebrate. So dominant were Atleti in the first half of the season – 16 wins, two draws and one defeat from their first 19 games – that the rest were struggling to keep up.

In fact, according to Stats Perform AI, on January 22 Atleti had a 75.1 per cent chance of winning the title based on predicted results, while Barca's chances were just 12.4 per cent. As of April 30, however, that same predictor model gave Atleti a 38 per cent chance of winning the league, with Barca just behind on 32.6.

While Atleti have won only half of their past 16 league games, Barca have been one of Europe's most in-form sides in 2021, winning all but three of their 19 league matches since the turn of the year – and lifting the Copa del Rey. They have collected 49 points in 2021, the most in the division and eight more than the leaders.

History is also on their side in this fixture: the 1-0 defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano in the reverse game, when Yannick Carrasco grabbed a first-half winner, was their only league loss to Atleti in their most recent 21 meetings. They have not lost at home to them since Pepe Murcia's side ran out 3-1 winners in February 2006. Diego Simeone has drawn three and lost five of his league games in charge of Atleti at Camp Nou, making it his least favourite opposition ground as well as the scene of arguably his greatest coaching achievement.

 

OUTPERFORMING

This weekend's game is also the meeting of the best defence and attack in the division. Barca have scored 80 league goals, at least 19 more than anyone else, but Atleti have conceded a miserly 22. Attacks win games, defences win titles, as the adage goes.

Barca have actually faced the fewest shots (280) of any team in LaLiga this season, 40 fewer than Atleti, who are sixth best. However, the Blaugrana have conceded 33 goals from an Expected Goals Against figure of 37.0, whereas Atleti's 22 have come from an xGA of 33.7.

That highlights perhaps Atleti's greatest asset: based on Expected Goals on Target – an indicator of the quality of shots faced by a goalkeeper – Jan Oblak has prevented 7.1 goals this season, the highest figure in LaLiga. For teams in Europe's top-five leagues, no goalkeeper who has played more than 10 games this season has a better save percentage (79.1) than Atleti's Slovenian sensation.

 

MESSI V SUAREZ: BEST OF ENEMIES

Having missed the reverse fixture, this will be the first time Luis Suarez has faced Barca since his rather acrimonious departure at the end of last season. To date, the Uruguay striker – who has 166 career goals in LaLiga – has scored against all 30 of the teams he has faced in Spain's top flight.

Suarez has been a driving force of Atleti's title charge, even though he has only managed three goals in his most recent 11 games. With 19 goals in 28 league appearances overall in 2020-21, Suarez is averaging 0.79 per 90 minutes. Only one player has a better rate: Lionel Messi (0.92), the top scorer in the league with 28 and perhaps the most in-form player since the turn of the year.

Since January 1, Messi has scored 21 goals in 18 games, more than anyone else in Europe's top five leagues. Excluding one penalty scored, he has plundered 20 from an xG of just 11, giving him the biggest positive differential for anyone in those top five leagues in 2021. He is a man on a mission – perhaps his final mission for the club, if he doesn't agree to extend his contract.

Prevailing wisdom would suggest one of these former team-mates will decide this contest and, in turn, the fate of the title race. Barca and Atleti have waited seven years for a battle like this – who will hold their nerve?

 

Jose Mourinho is already plotting his moves in his first transfer window at Roma, where he will take charge at the end of the season.

The Portuguese reportedly is hoping to bring players he already knows to Serie A.

Could a pair of Red Devils and Spurs be headed to the Italian capital? 

 

TOP STORY – MOURINHO EYES FAMILIAR FACES

Jose Mourinho may turn to his Premier League connections to bolster his first Roma side. 

Manchester United pair Nemanja Matic and David de Gea are among the players with Old Trafford legacies on Mourinho's wish list, according to the Daily Mirror and Todofichajes. 

Among more recent Mourinho pupils, Eric Dier and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg are among the Spurs players who stand as possibilities, says Corriere dello Sport. 

Football London also linked Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura with possible Roma moves as former Tottenham head coach Mourinho prepares to replace Paulo Fonseca ahead of the 2021-22 season.

 

ROUND-UP  

- Corriere dello Sport reports Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are eyeing Napoli star Fabian Ruiz and Lazio's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Spain international Fabian has been heavily linked with Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Fellow midfielder Milinkovic-Savic, meanwhile, continues to be linked with the likes of Inter, Juventus, United and PSG.

Yves Bissouma could be headed to Manchester City as a replacement for Fernandinho, the Daily Star claims. City are said to be confident they can strike a £30million deal for the 24-year-old Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder. The Daily Express, however, has Arsenal leading the fight for the Mali international, with TottenhamWest Ham and Everton also potential landing spots. 

Chelsea may bring back striker Armando Broja on a lucrative contract after loaning the 19-year-old to Eredivisie outfit Vitesse Arnhem this term, Fabrizio Romano says, but other big clubs are circling as well.

- Juventus centre-back Giorgio Chiellini is considering a move to MLS after his contract ends in June, Calciomercato reports. 

Miralem Pjanic could leave Barcelona as Sport claims the midfield outcast attracts interest from the likes of Chelsea and Inter

- Barca are considering the idea of allowing Francisco Trincao to leave on loan amid interest from Milan and Roma, according to Calciomercato. 

- RMC Sport says Milan have reached an agreement in principle to sign Lille goalkeeper Mike Maignan at the end of the season. It comes amid doubts over the future of star Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is set to become a free agent. Yet to renew, Donnarumma has been linked with Juve, Tottenham, Chelsea and United.

Inter star Lautaro Martinez said he was "truly very close" to joining Lionel Messi's Barcelona before opting to remain at San Siro.

Martinez was heavily linked with a big-money transfer to LaLiga giants Barca prior to the 2020-21 season after starring for Inter in Serie A.

A switch to Camp Nou did not eventuate and Argentina international Martinez celebrated Inter's first Scudetto since 2009-10 last week.

Amid growing speculation over a contract extension in Milan, Martinez revealed the coronavirus pandemic derailed a move to Barca following discussions with countryman Messi.

"I was truly very close to joining Barcelona and I even talked it over with Messi," Martinez told ESPN Argentina.

"However, the Blaugrana had economic problems at that moment, so I decided to stay at Inter. It proved to be the right decision, especially as we then won the Scudetto.

"It's just incredible to win the title at such an important club."

Martinez arrived from Racing Club in 2018 and the 23-year-old has scored 47 goals across all competitions for Inter, including 15 in 34 Serie A appearances this term.

However, Martinez revealed Real Madrid attempted to prise him from boyhood club Racing Club before eventually joining Inter.

"Real Madrid did come for me twice when I was in the Racing youth team, but I wanted to make my name in Argentinean football first and only made the move to Europe when I was ready," he added.

"I do dream one day of returning to Racing. The fans are just as 'crazy' and passionate as the Inter ones."

Ansu Fati's injury comeback has hit another setback, with Barcelona confirming the Spain forward has had to undergo another knee operation.

Fati suffered a serious meniscus injury in November, having scored five goals across 10 appearances for Barca across all competitions.

He had initially been forecast to return in March, though the 18-year-old hinted in a social media post at the end of that month he may be facing a longer spell on the sidelines.

Having failed to return to training throughout April, Fati has now gone under the knife yet again, this time for a revision arthroscopy in his left knee.

Barca confirmed in a statement on the club's official website that the operation had been undertaken by Dr. Jose Carlos Noronha in Porto.

The Blaugrana have offered no update on a timescale for Fati's return, though it will certainly rule the youngster out of Euro 2020, albeit his chances of making the rearranged tournament already seemed extremely remote.

Erling Haaland "would make any team in the world better", according to Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

The lofty praise came as reports continue to link the Borussia Dortmund star with a move to Camp Nou.

Barca are just one of the leading European clubs to be credited with an interest in the prolific 20-year-old, with Real Madrid, Manchester United and Manchester City also in the frame.

He is certainly a signing that would be welcomed by Ter Stegen, who nonetheless thinks the Norwegian would take some convincing to leave Dortmund.

But if anyone could prise him away, Ter Stegen believes they will have secured a talent who will serve them well for a decade.

"His style of play and goalscoring is impressive," the Germany international told Sport1.

"When you see videos in which he runs from the very back to the front in full sprint and hits the ball with all his might, that's amazing. It's pure will, you can't train that. Either you have this will or you don't. 

"Haaland would make any team in the world better. But that doesn't mean that he won't stay in Dortmund. 

"BVB is a very well run club at which an excellent job has been done in recent years. Why shouldn't he stay there for another year? That would be by no means a step backwards.

"If he leaves, his new team would have an amazing striker for the next 10 years."

Haaland's exploits have been mightily impressive this season, with 25 goals from 26 Bundesliga appearances coming at a rate of one every 89 minutes, and five assists to boot.

He replicated that form on the biggest stage, netting 10 times in eight Champions League outings, working out at a goal every 70 minutes and 30 seconds in a run to the quarter-finals.

That remarkable return saw him become the fastest player to reach 20 goals in the competition, with it taking just 14 games – 10 fewer than previous record holder Harry Kane.

Real Madrid and Kylian Mbappe – the two parties have long been tipped to come together.

Mbappe is out of contract at Paris Saint-Germain in 2022 and no closer to renewing his deal.

Madrid are reportedly moving closer to prising the France international to the Spanish capital.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE POISED FOR MADRID MOVE?

Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe is edging closer to joining LaLiga giants Real Madrid, according to Diario AS.

Mbappe has long been tipped to swap PSG for Madrid, though the Ligue 1 holds continue to try to re-sign the World Cup-winning forward.

PSG's Mbappe is determined to win the Champions League as he eyes the Santiago Bernabeu.


 

ROUND-UP

- Le Parisien, though, claims PSG are holding out hope on teaming Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi with Mbappe and Neymar in Paris. Messi is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and he has been linked with PSG and Manchester City. Neymar has also been linked with a Barca return. However, Le Parisien reports PSG are prioritising a move for Messi while trying to retain Neymar and Mbappe.

Lautaro Martinez is on the verge of signing a new contract with Serie A champions Inter, says Gazzetta dello Sport. The Inter forward has been linked with Barca previously.

- Tuttosport reports star Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is a primary transfer target for Serie A rivals Juventus. Donnarumma is out of contract at the end of the season and the Italy international has not agreed fresh terms with Milan.

Borussia Dortmund will ask for less than €100million (£86m) to sell Jadon Sancho amid interest from United, Chelsea and Liverpool, says Fabrizio Romano.

- The Mirror says Liverpool are eyeing Roma star Lorenzo Pellegrini as incoming Giallorossi boss Jose Mourinho looks to overhaul the squad in the Italian capital. The front page of Thursday's Gazzetto dello Sport, meanwhile, claims Mourinho is looking to bring Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic and Madrid's Isco to Roma.

- Soon-to-be free agent and City star Sergio Aguero is dreaming of a Barcelona move, according to Romano. InterTottenham and Chelsea have also emerged as options for the veteran forward.

Maurizio Sarri is a candidate to take charge of Milan if Stefano Pioli fails to guide the Rossoneri into the Champions League, claims Gazzetta dello Sport. Sarri was reportedly set to join Roma before Mourinho's appointment.

- Rennes sensation Eduardo Camavinga, Sassuolo's Manuel Locatelli and Mikel Merino of Real Sociedad are on Barca's shortlist to replace Sergio Busquets, reports Mundo Deportivo.

Barcelona are to appeal to Spain's Administrative Court of Sport (TAD) after head coach Ronald Koeman's touchline ban for Saturday's potential LaLiga title decider with Atletico Madrid was upheld.

Koeman was hit with a two-match suspension after being shown a red card for comments he supposedly made to the fourth official during his side's shock 2-1 home loss to Granada last Thursday.

The 58-year-old sat out Sunday's 3-2 win against Valencia, with assistant coach Alfred Schreuder placed in charge for the win that leaves Barca two points behind leaders Atletico ahead of this weekend's showdown.

Barcelona had hoped to have Koeman back for that massive game at Camp Nou, but it was announced on Wednesday that their appeal was not successful.

However, the Catalan giants will now take their case to TAD and have requested a temporary suspension of the ban which will allow the Dutchman to be on the touchline against Atletico.

Barca are also behind second-placed Real Madrid by virtue of an inferior head-to-head record and face Levante, Celta Vigo and Eibar after the visit of Atleti.

Lionel Messi is to be investigated by the Professional Football League (LFP) following an alleged breach of coronavirus-enforced health protocols.

It was claimed my numerous media outlets that Messi invited team-mates and their respective partners to his home after the 3-2 win over Valencia for a celebratory barbecue.

While it has been seen as another example of Messi seemingly being happy again in Barcelona following his attempt to leave last year, the apparent gathering has also attracted the wrong sort of publicity.

Local government has imposed restrictions that prohibit gatherings of more than six people.

"Meetings and/or family and social gatherings, both in the public and private spheres, are allowed as long as the maximum number of six people is not exceeded, except in the case of cohabitants," Catalan regulations state.

"However, family and social gatherings and/or encounters that take place in closed spaces, including homes, are recommended to be restricted as much as possible and limited to visits to dependent or vulnerable people and that are always from the same bubble of coexistence."

Stats Perform News understands LFP is looking into the allegations against Messi in an attempt to understand whether protocols have been violated.

ABC in Spain reports Barca have dismissed the idea of a violation breach due to the fact all the players work in the same bubble every day.

 

Erling Haaland and Romelu Lukaku appear to be the top forwards on English clubs' shopping lists this off-season.

But Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski may enter the frame amid rumours about his future.

Manchester City and Chelsea are known to be eager to bolster their attacking options and have the funds to finance a major move.

 

TOP STORY – ENGLAND ON LEWANDOWSKI'S RADAR

SportBild reports that Robert Lewandowski's likely next destination will be the English Premier League, if Bayern Munich opt to sell their Polish forward.

The report claims that Lewandowski's agent Pini Zahavi is trying to put pressure on Bayern for a lucrative contract extension or to sell him to one of England's financially powerful clubs.

Lewandowski still has two years to run on his Bayern contract and the Bavarians are believed to not be ready to negotiate.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano claims that Romelu Lukaku is not planning to leave Inter amid interest from Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona, pointing to comments he made following the club's Serie A title triumph on Sunday.

- Romano also claims that Watford, who have won promotion to the Premier League, have begun talks with Inter's Ashley Young who may be available as a free agent.

- Marca reports that PSG are increasingly concerned that Neymar will not sign a contract extension with the club amid talk of a Barcelona move.

- Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer is being tracked by Premier League club Newcastle United, claims the Daily Record.

- Tottenham are interested in Brazilian teenager Rodrigo Varanda who is currently with Corinthians, says The Sun.

Lionel Messi scored the 50th free-kick goal of his Barcelona career to fuel hopes of a stunning LaLiga title triumph.

Messi's two goals in a 3-2 victory at Valencia on Sunday took him to 28 league strikes for the season, and that also meant the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner stayed ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in their friendly long-distance rivalry.

Barca captain Messi's seasonal tally is one more than Juventus' former Real Madrid talisman Ronaldo has managed in the current Serie A campaign, after the Portuguese netted twice in a win at Udinese earlier on Sunday.

Both are leading the way in their respective leagues, and only 36-goal Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski has scored more times than Messi in the top five European leagues in the current campaign.

Of Messi's stunning set-piece career haul, 39 of his free-kicks have come in LaLiga but few will have been as important as the curling strike that ultimately made sure of the points at Mestalla, giving Barcelona a 3-1 lead that was trimmed when Carlos Soler hit an excellent consolation.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman was a free-kick specialist himself, but he was absent from the touchline against Valencia.

That was because Koeman received a two-match touchline ban for the remonstrations during Thursday's shock defeat to Granada that saw him sent off.

In his place, Koeman's assistant Alfred Schreuder led the team, and it was down to the former Hoffenheim boss to dampen down excitement about this coming Saturday's clash between Barcelona and current leaders Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou.

Barcelona would go top of LaLiga by one point, for a little over 24 hours at least, should they win that game.

There are just four rounds of fixtures to come, and next week's games appear highly significant, given Real Madrid and Sevilla, the other two teams in title contention, also go head-to-head.

"We are all close," said Schreuder. "But we are there. We don't look at other teams, only at ourselves. Next week isn't a final, we have four matchdays in which we have to try to win.

"Yes, we trust our players to win LaLiga. We have reduced the gap to Atletico since January. We have competed well in these last three months."

The loss to Granada was a juddering result for Barcelona, but they had enough to fend off Valencia.

Messi missed a penalty but scored seconds later as the ball pinged around the Valencia 18-yard box, while Antoine Griezmann was also on target as Barcelona reacted positively to going behind early in the second half.

"We have shown character," Schreuder said. "We believed in what we were doing."

Gerard Pique predicted there will be major twists to come in LaLiga's title race after Barcelona beat Valencia 3-2 to crank up the pressure on Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

The Barcelona defensive stalwart said there is a determination within Ronald Koeman's squad to secure a league and cup double after already securing the Copa del Rey title.

Pique believes that would be a major statement by the current set of players, but it will take a big effort from Barcelona, who must face leaders Atletico at Camp Nou this coming Saturday.

Atletico hold a two-point advantage over Barcelona going into that game, while Real Madrid are also two points back from their city rivals. Sevilla, too, are clinging to the hope of fighting their way past the big three to snatch only their second Spanish league title. Sevilla and Madrid face each other next Sunday.

"We hope to be leaders after the next match day, but even if we are leaders, I would not put my hand in the fire that whoever comes out leader will win LaLiga," Pique told Movistar Plus.

He added: "It is not in our hands, but I think that if we win the four games that remain, we have many chances to win LaLiga. It would be a shame if after the effort we made in this second half of the season we wouldn't end up fighting for LaLiga until the end."

Lionel Messi's double strike took his haul to 28 goals in LaLiga this season, and it came despite him missing a penalty when Barcelona were 1-0 behind, just as he also did in the home game against Valencia in December.

As in that first match, Messi made amends by finding the net just seconds after failing from the spot.

Whereas Barcelona could only draw 2-2 at Camp Nou, in this Mestalla clash Messi's equaliser was the cue for a flurry of goals for the Blaugrana, with Antoine Griezmann prodding them ahead. Messi curled a stunning free-kick in off the right post to make it 3-1, before Carlos Soler hit a brilliant consolation for Valencia.

Messi's second goal was the 50th direct free-kick he has scored in his Barcelona career, with 39 of those coming in LaLiga, five in the Champions League, three in the Copa del Rey, two in the UEFA Super Cup and one in the Supercopa de Espana.

The penalty miss, meanwhile, signalled the first time that Messi has missed consecutive spot-kicks for Barcelona in all competitions, after previously failing to convert against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

Pique acknowledged Barcelona "had to suffer a little" after Soler's strike ramped up the pressure in the closing minutes.

Pique added: "We've shown ourselves and our fans that we want this league title. Winning the Copa was a first step, but we now want LaLiga. It would be a great message for this season and next season."

Barcelona withstood a scare to beat Valencia 3-2 and set up a grandstand Camp Nou clash with LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid next weekend.

Lionel Messi missed a penalty but scored twice, including a sublime free-kick, with Antoine Griezmann also on target at Mestalla.

The Barcelona goals came after the jolt of conceding early in the second half when Gabriel Paulista headed in from a corner to give the hosts the lead, with visiting boss Ronald Koeman banned from the touchline after his dismissal in the shock defeat to Granada.

Carlos Soler drove in a spectacular late second for Valencia, but Barcelona's success means they are back to just two points behind Atletico, and level again with Real Madrid, as the saga of the title race heads for a thrilling conclusion.

Pedri wasted a great chance in the third minute as he shot wide of the right post after being teed up by Frenkie de Jong, and Ronald Araujo's effort on the stretch from a teasing Messi free-kick was blocked away by goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.

Valencia's Goncalo Guedes should have scored early in the second half but allowed Marc-Andre ter Stegen to push his shot wide for a corner. However, Gabriel made no mistake when Soler swept the set-piece delivery across from the left, heading in at the far post.

Barcelona drew level in the 57th minute through Messi, despite him failing from the spot. Toni Lato conceded the spot-kick after jabbing his right arm at a floated Messi pass, and although the Argentinian saw his tame penalty parried by Cillessen, Pedri's shot as the ball pinged around the box was deflected to Barcelona's record scorer, who netted from close range.

The visitors went ahead six minutes later when De Jong's powerful header from Jordi Alba's cross was well saved by Cillessen but palmed only as far as Griezmann, who tucked home.

Messi's second goal was a 69th-minute curling free-kick from a central starting point that found the back of the net via the inside of the right post, giving the goalkeeper little chance, a speciality of Barca's captain.

It was arguably topped by Soler's brilliant long-range finish in the 83rd minute, but Valencia could not find a leveller.

Will Lionel Messi stay or leave?

The superstar Barcelona captain is set to become a free agent, though the LaLiga giants are determined to re-sign Messi.

Paris Saint-Germain are interested but Messi could reportedly extend his Camp Nou career.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI SET FOR BARCA STAY?

Lionel Messi is closer to staying at Barcelona than joining Paris Saint-Germain, according to L'Equipe.

Messi's future has dominated headlines, with his contract due to expire at season's end amid interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

Barca are keen to re-sign Messi, who is encouraged by the Copa del Rey triumph and Joan Laporta's plans, despite an offer from PSG.

 

ROUND-UP

Barca have reached out to PSG regarding a possible reunion with Neymar, however, RAC1 says the Ligue 1 holders are not willing to sell the Brazilian superstar.

Everton are plotting a bid for soon-to-be free agent and City star Sergio Aguero, reports the Daily Star. Aguero will leave the Etihad Stadium on a free transfer and the forward has been linked with Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter and Tottenham.

- Fabrizio Romano says Leicester City are working on a deal to sign Lille star Boubakary Soumare, who has previously been linked with Manchester United, Tottenham, Inter and Napoli.

- The Sun claims Borussia Dortmund have joined United and PSG in the battle sign Brighton and Hove Albion defender Ben White.

- Sky Sport Italia claims Milan ultras met with star goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and demanded he sits out the fixture against Serie A rivals Juventus if he does not renew his contract. Donnarumma is set to become a free agent and he is yet to re-sign amid reports he is in talks with Juve. The Italy international has also been linked with United, Chelsea and PSG.

United are prepared to sell Paul Pogba if he does not commit to a new contract, according to The Sun. Juve and Real Madrid are reportedly eyeing the French star. It comes as The Sun also claims United are not willing to part ways with Donny van de Beek following a difficult first season at Old Trafford.

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