In 2015, Lionel Messi and Barcelona were on top of the world.

Led by Messi - alongside Neymar and Luis Suarez in a devastating 122-goal attack - the Blaugrana claimed their second treble with Champions League success, then making them the first European club to achieve such a feat.

The Club World Cup title followed for Luis Enrique's side, but such supremely high standards were not maintained.

Five years later, the 'MSN' front line has long since been broken up by Neymar's departure - and now Messi intends to follow his former colleague out of Camp Nou.

Barca did not win a single trophy in a 2019-20 campaign that ended in humiliation with the 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich that prompted Quique Setien's sacking before Messi's shock transfer request.

Just where has it all gone wrong for one of the world's biggest clubs? We take a look.
 

JUNE 2015: Barca batter Bianconeri in Berlin

Suarez's 2014 move from Liverpool had been a roaring success for Barca even before they took to the field against Juventus in the Champions League final. Linking up with Messi and Neymar to great effect, an ambitious attacking approach made them arguably even better on the eye than Pep Guardiola's outstanding 2008-09 team.

Then Barca took Juve apart in Berlin with goals from Ivan Rakitic, another new signing, Suarez and Neymar and history was theirs. It appeared Messi and Co could do no wrong.

APRIL 2016: Wobble costs European crown

Barca's serene progress continued into the next season and, heading into April, they had lost just three times in all competitions, in the process becoming world champions for the third time - again a record at that stage.

But the Blaugrana then sensationally lost four of their first five matches in April. Three straight LaLiga defeats did not cost Luis Enrique's men the title, but the Champions League quarter-final second-leg reverse at the hands of Atletico Madrid ended their continental dominance amid a Messi goal drought.

APRIL 2017: Neymar's rescue act proves in vain

It was in the 2016-17 campaign that Luis Enrique's reign came to an end, with news of his impending departure confirmed in early March. Neymar did his utmost to send the coach in style, though, with a heroic performance against future employers Paris Saint-Germain, a dramatic late brace teeing up the remarkable 6-5 aggregate win in the Champions League.

That triumph kept Barca's latest treble bid on track, but it soon faltered. They lost 3-0 at Juve in April and were shut out in the return leg, while rivals Real Madrid marched towards the domestic championship, seeing Luis Enrique bow out in relatively underwhelming fashion.

AUGUST 2017: Selecao superstar stuns the world

Crucially, Luis Enrique was not the only man to depart Camp Nou at the end of the 2016-17 season. Neymar appeared to enjoy his role as the main man in the PSG tie, so the Brazil superstar traded Barcelona for Paris in a stunning €222million move.

The huge fee seemed to burn a hole in the Blaugrana's pocket as the first of several unsuccessful attempts to replace Neymar took them to Germany to buy Ousmane Dembele. Philippe Coutinho followed in January, with the duo struggling for form and/or fitness.

APRIL 2018: Roma remontada ruins campaign

Barca won back the LaLiga title under Ernesto Valverde in 2017-18, also claiming the Copa del Rey, yet their season still ended in disappointment in what would become an extremely concerning theme.

Valverde's outfit won 4-1 at home to Roma in the Champions League quarter-finals to all but seal their progress, only to incredibly go down 3-0 in Italy and crash out, extending Messi's wait for a fifth European triumph by another year.

MAY 2019: Reds inflict humiliating repeat

The next season felt far too familiar for Messi and Barca. In 2015, winning had felt second nature. By 2019, even the most extraordinary of collapses seemed very on-brand.

After failing to bring back Neymar and instead blowing a huge sum on Malcom, yet still easing to LaLiga glory, Barca remarkably again threw away a three-goal advantage in the Champions League. Liverpool overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit in the semis with a 4-0 Anfield success as the Catalan side imploded once more.

FEBRUARY 2020: Abidal at war with Messi

Matters on the field were relatively steady this term prior to January's Supercopa de Espana defeat to Atletico Madrid, with Barca still in control of the league title race. But then Valverde was sacked and sporting director Eric Abidal made the mistake of blaming the squad for not working hard enough.

Messi responded with indignation and a hugely damaging feud was launched via a series of back-and-forth comments and briefings, appearing to publicly place significant strain on the club's relationship with their talisman for the first time.

AUGUST 2020: Bayern loss the breaking point

Relations were still a little rocky between Messi and the board through football's coronavirus-related shutdown, but for all Barca's troubles in recent years, their ability to rely on one of the greatest players in the history of the sport has so often been a saving grace. Messi dragged them past Napoli in the Champions League.

But even a Barcelona lifer like the great number 10 appears to have a breaking point. The 8-2 humbling at the hands of Bayern meant even the departures of Setien and Abidal could not convince Messi to stick around and influence a mammoth rebuild, with Suarez also set to depart.

In one of the least surprising things to occur in world football this season, Quique Setien's time as Barcelona coach came to an abrupt end on Monday.

The decision to axe the former Real Betis tactician was made following one of the darkest days in Barca's history, as they were remarkably dumped out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage by Bayern Munich – the Germans winning 8-2 in Lisbon.

It was an astonishing contest – if it can be called that – as Bayern obliterated the Catalans, whose embarrassment was compounded in the latter stages by Philippe Coutinho coming on to get an assist and two goals in the latter stages.

Josep Maria Bartomeu hinted a change was in the offing and it was soon established a board meeting had been called for Monday – that post-mortem has unsurprisingly led to Setien's departure after just seven months at the helm.

The issues at Barca run deep and only begin with Setien, but as Opta data shows, they have been less effective since he replaced Ernesto Valverde.

More of the ball – fans appeased?

One of the issues many Barca fans had with Valverde was the style of play. Some felt he had deferred from the club's obsession with possession in favour of a more pragmatic and direct approach.

Valverde would point to the fact he led them to back-to-back LaLiga titles as a counter argument, and Barca's woes this term suggest he did a fine job winning those crowns.

Nevertheless, it was not as if Barca suddenly became possession shy under Valverde - they averaged 63 per cent of the ball with him in charge, but with Setien's appointment came an obvious shift back to a style that seemed to put ball control above all else.

They averaged 68 per cent possession with Setien, while their passes per game went up to 738 from 657 and accuracy increased from 88 per cent to 89 per cent - though the latter is probably skewed by Barca making more short passes.

Fewer goals, more conceded

That extra time on the ball doesn't appear to have contributed a great deal from a positive perspective, however.

In fact, the data suggests Barca have been less potent despite seeing more of the possession.

Barca averaged 6.48 shots on target and 2.34 goals every 90 minutes with Valverde, but those figures decreased to 5.44 and two respectively with Setien at the helm.

And fewer goals scored did not equate to a better defensive record, either, having shipped 1.08 goals per game under Setien compared to 0.88 during Valverde's time in charge.

Win rate down, historic defeat

Ultimately, for all the stats on possession and goals both scored and conceded, Setien was dismissed due to poor results.

Barca's win rate dropped from 66.9 per cent under Valverde to 64 per cent following Setien's appointment, the LaLiga giants winning only 16 of their 25 games under the former Real Betis boss.

The last of those games will go down in Barca's history for all the wrong reasons, the humiliating loss at the hands of Bayern the first time they have conceded eight goals in a game since losing 8-0 to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey 74 years ago.

It was also the first time they have lost a match by six goals since April 1951, when beaten 6-0 by Espanyol in a league encounter.

Whichever way you look at it, then, a total reset will now likely be required for the next man who takes on one of the most demanding jobs in world football.

The strangest thing about Barcelona's humbling Champions League exit at the hands of a rampant Bayern Munich is that it wasn't even an entirely new experience for them.

Indeed, Friday's Lisbon horror show represented the third time in as many campaigns that Barca's European journey has ended in ignominy.

Here, we look back on the unwanted hat-trick the Camp Nou giants completed by capitulating once again on the grand continental stage.

Barca fans might want to look away now...

APR 10, 2018: ROMA 3-0 BARCELONA 

A 4-1 first-leg win ensured Barca had one foot in the semi-finals, with their progress practically a certainty.

Perhaps they believed that all too readily, because Roma had an altogether different script in mind and quickly set about creating their version of events.

Edin Dzeko scored after only six minutes to lay the foundation, with Daniele de Rossi converting a second-half spot-kick to pile on the pressure.

It was left to defender Kostas Manolas to heading home the clincher, his effort eight minutes from time meaning Roma went through on away goals.

MAY 7, 2019: LIVERPOOL 4-0 BARCELONA

That collapse in Rome should have removed any possibility of complacency when Barca headed to Liverpool boasting a three-goal first-leg advantage.

The prize this time was a place in the final but any lessons learned from bitter experience appeared quickly forgotten as the visitors were behind at Anfield within seven minutes.

Divock Origi was the scorer and, after Georginio Wijnaldum netted twice, the Belgian doubled his own tally by capitalising on a quick corner from Trent Alexander-Arnold.

As brilliant as Liverpool were, Barca were abject and, for the second year in a row, had choked on a healthy lead.

AUG 14, 2020: BARCELONA 2-8 BAYERN MUNICH

It was hard at times to believe what was unfolding in the Portuguese capital, as one of the most iconic teams in all of sport suffered an absolute humiliation.

The embarrassment was palpable at 4-1 down after little more than half an hour, but the signs that it would likely get worse were there for all to see.

Barca were shambolic while Bayern were anything but, breaking through their opponents at will to score, and score again... and again.

Quique Setien must have been horrified as the tally kept increasing, with records tumbling along the way. It was a dark night indeed for Barca.

"When you play the first match in old San Mames, you can say that you can die, it's crazy."

Born in Eibar – around a 50km journey to Bilbao in the Basque Country – Markel Susaeta epitomised what it meant to play for Athletic Bilbao.

Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).

The Spanish winger even wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.

Susaeta made his goalscoring senior debut away to Barcelona 13 years ago and stepped out onto Sam Mames for the first time a fortnight later, scoring a free-kick in a 1-1 draw with Real Zaragoza.

"When you play the first match, you are in heaven. You never thought you could play in that stadium and the supporters are amazing – always helping the team," Susaeta told Stats Perform News.

Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.

Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.

While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.

"For the kids of Basque Country, Real Sociedad, Athletic, many, many kids… I think more kids want to play for Athletic Bilbao," Susaeta said. "When you go to the first division, all the players, it's difficult to keep all the players at Athletic because all the players aren't the same, different things for their future. Kepa [Arrizabalaga] went to Chelsea, [Ander] Herrera went to Manchester United, [Fernando] Llorente went to Juventus, Javi Martinez Bayern Munich.

"Many players they went to other big clubs but a lot of players, more than the players that go, they stay at Athletic. For that reason, Athletic in the last 12-13 years, play very good football, a very good level. One year we played in the Champions League, we won one Supercopa, we played in three, four finals for the Copa del Rey. It's very difficult but Athletic always does things well."

"Athletic are the most special team in the world for me, what can I say? The philosophy that the people that aren't from Basque Country, they love Athletic's philosophy because it's different to other teams from the world," Susaeta added. "The kids love Athletic, they only like Athletic Bilbao. They don't like Barcelona, Madrid, they like Athletic Bilbao. This love is different than the other clubs."

Susaeta is an example of Athletic's production line, which is now headlined by the likes of young stars Inaki Williams and Unai Nunez. The 32-year-old Susaeta came through the ranks, spending one season with farm team Basconia and another with the B team before being thrust into the first-team picture in 2007.

The one-time Spain international was a vital member of Athletic's stunning Supercopa de Espana triumph under former boss Ernesto Valverde five years ago – a 5-1 two-legged rout of Barca ending a 31-year wait for silverware.

A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta also experienced Athletic's unforgettable journey to the 2012 Europa League final, with Marcelo Bielsa at the helm.

"With Marcelo, you play a very intense football. He always wants to play the ball, for example, he likes man-marking. It's a little bit crazy to keep the whole season with man-marking. We spent two years with him but with Marcelo, it was the best football I ever played," Susaeta said as he compared the two coaches.

"With Valverde, we played in the Champions League. It's more difficult because after Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it's a very crazy season. With Valverde, you're more regular in defending and attacking, all the team go together. It's different. But the best football, the more attractive football that I ever played was with Bielsa."

Athletic lost the all-Spanish Europa League decider in 2012, beaten 3-0 by Atletico Madrid in Bucharest. While Bielsa's men left Arena Nationala emptyhanded, their campaign was a memorable one, having outclassed Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in the last 16 – a shock 3-2 victory at Old Trafford the highlight.

It was a famous win for Athletic, who came from behind to record a first win on English soil and Susaeta said: "It's the one of the most important matches in my life. We played at Old Trafford and we played amazing football. That morning, with Bielsa, we trained for two hours, doing sprints. It was crazy.

"In the evening, we won playing amazing football. It was a very good memories because that year we won against very good European clubs but in the final we were tired, I don't know what happened but we couldn't win the final."

Susaeta was also fortunate to play in both the old San Mames and new San Mames, which opened in 2013.

"In the old San Mames, I played my first match, in that stadium, we played very good football with Bielsa – a crazy year with two finals," he added. "In the other San Mames, we played in the Champions League. In the two stadiums, I have very good memories. They are two very special stadiums."

Susaeta now finds himself playing for Melbourne City in Australia after a difficult spell with Japanese giants Gamba Osaka.

A January arrival, Susaeta had scored two goals and set up another for City – part of the City Football Group (CFG) – before the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about a possible Athletic return after his unceremonious exit last year, Susaeta replied: "I don't want to see the future, I want to live the present. I'm very happy in Melbourne and Australia, it's a very good country and city. I'm very happy with my club and team-mates. My family is happy here and we want to stay here longer. Now it's very crazy the situation but I hope we can train again in a few weeks and finish the season in a few months.

"Japan was very difficult for me and my family because many things are different. Here we feel very good, we feel happy. My kids are happy in childcare. Here everything is perfect. I'm very happy in the football. For me, it's perfect. I'm very happy here and I hope I can stay here more years."

After the Bundesliga's successful return, LaLiga looks to be up next among Europe's top five leagues.

Spain's top flight has been suspended since March 12 after Real Madrid went into quarantine when a player on their basketball team tested positive for coronavirus.

A resumption date of June 8 has been approved, however, and a tense title tussle is back on the cards between the country's two grandest clubs.

Ahead of the big kick-off behind closed doors, we take a look at the story so far in this LaLiga campaign.
 

What is the state of play?

Madrid have won the domestic league title in just one of the past seven seasons, yet they are poised to push Barcelona all the way this time.

It is Barca who again have the advantage for now, though, holding a two-point lead over their bitter rivals, having reclaimed top spot ahead of the suspension when Zinedine Zidane's side lost at Real Betis.

Defeat in Seville represented a bitter blow for Madrid, who seemed to have seized the initiative by beating the Blaugrana at the Santiago Bernabeu the previous week.

The big two still have work to do in the Champions League - Madrid trail Manchester City after a last-16 first leg, as Barca-Napoli stands at 1-1 - but there is no third horse in the race positioned to take advantage.

It is all to play for in the race for Champions League qualification, as just two points separate third-placed Sevilla and Atletico Madrid in sixth.

Shot-shy draw kings Atleti upset holders Liverpool to reach the quarter-finals of Europe's elite club competition, but must battle past Real Sociedad and Getafe to be assured of a return to the big time next season.

At the foot of the table, Espanyol, Leganes and Real Mallorca occupy the relegation places. Celta Vigo are a point clear of Mallorca in 17th.
 

What have been the big controversies?

Even by Barca's colourful standards, this has been a particularly tumultuous season.

Head coach Ernesto Valverde was sacked in January following a Supercopa de Espana semi-final reverse at the hands of Atletico, and sporting director Eric Abidal bravely picked a fight with the squad, including former team-mate Lionel Messi, by suggesting players were not working hard enough for the dismissed boss.

Messi fired back and claimed Abidal was "dirtying" the squad, with reports of discontent behind the scenes persisting ever since.

To make matters worse for Barca, club great Messi has a clause in his contract that could prompt a free transfer - although such a departure still seems incredibly unlikely.

Ivan Rakitic is among the Blaugrana stars who might well depart, reminding the club: "I am not a sack of potatoes. I will decide my future. I want to be where I am valued."

Sales are said to be required to fund potential big-money bids for Lautaro Martinez and ex-Barca forward Neymar.
 

Who had momentum before everything stopped?

New head coach Quique Setien was not immediately able to arrest Barca's January slump and they ceded top spot to Madrid after a run of just two wins in six in the league.

However, the Catalan giants had been a picture of consistency since the January 25 loss at Valencia - until visiting Madrid.

A run of four straight wins was ended by Zidane's men, yet Barca were back on track when they beat Sociedad prior to the pause in play.

Madrid, by contrast, have taken just four points from their past four games, with the Barca game sandwiched between a pair of defeats. Los Blancos had previously lost just once in the league this term.

The suspension came at a frustrating time for Sociedad, meanwhile, after four wins in five - losing only to the leaders - moved the Basque outfit into the top four.

Wins for Leganes and Mallorca in their most recent fixtures ensured both sides retained survival hopes.
 

Which clubs have had it toughest during the COVID-19 months?

The positive test for a Madrid basketball players may have prompted the season's suspension, but Valencia were the LaLiga club most prominent in early discussion of coronavirus.

Ezequiel Garay, Jose Gaya and Eliaquim Mangala each confirmed diagnoses, before Los Che revealed on March 16 that 35 per cent of those at the club tested had returned positive results.

Madrid still made the headlines, though, as forward Luka Jovic was criticised for breaching self-isolation measures on his return to Serbia.

Fifteen cases were soon confirmed at Deportivo Alaves, too, while Spain has become one of the worst-affected countries with more than 28,000 related deaths.

The country's leading players at least helped to limit the financial impact of the crisis with pay cuts, with Barca stars forgoing more than 70 per cent of their wages.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit Spain, it had been an uneasy season for Barcelona, despite the Blaugrana sitting top of LaLiga by two points when the division's suspension was confirmed.

It remains to be seen whether the 2019-20 season resumes at all – it is not outside the realms of possibility the campaign is voided across Europe, even if the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) insists it will be finished.

If it were to be nulled, one gets the feeling few associated with Barcelona would be especially angry to see the back of 2019-20 – even if it means the title is no longer attainable, as strange as that sounds.

With the help of Opta data, we've taken a look back at Barcelona's campaign and, despite the issues surrounding the club, Lionel Messi unsurprisingly still comes out well…

BARCA IN 2019-20

58 - Barca have 58 points at the 27-match mark, making it their worst haul at this point of the season since 2007-08 – the campaign before Pep Guardiola took charge – when they had 54 at this stage. Frank Rijkaard was in charge at the time.

1 - Ernesto Valverde became the first LaLiga coach since Radomir Antic in 1991-92 to be dismissed in the same season he was top of the table during Spain's winter break. Johan Cruyff's Barca won the title that year.

63 - Barca's haul of 63 goals is also the fewest they have managed after 27 matches since netting 52 in 2007-08, when they finished third.

5 - Five defeats have already been inflicted upon Barca this season, more than in any of the previous 11 LaLiga seasons.

MESSI SHOULDERS THE BURDEN

31 - With 19 goals, Messi is LaLiga's top scorer this season. But that's by no means all he has contributed – the Argentinian dynamo has also provided 12 assists in LaLiga, more than any other player.

2 - Indeed, Messi is one of only two players to reach double figures for both goals and assists across Europe's top five leagues – the other being Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho (G:14, A:15).

438 - Messi became the leading all-time goalscorer across Europe's top five leagues as well, having taken his tally to 438 from 474 matches. His eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo remains on his heels, however. The Portugal icon has 437 from 540 outings.

THE REST

1,002 - Quique Setien joined Barca with a reputation for his obsession for possession. So, it's perhaps unsurprising that in his LaLiga debut with the club, he became only the third coach since records began in 2005-06 to oversee a team that attempted over 1,000 passes in a single match. Against Granada, Barca tried 1,002.

3 - Ansu Fati became the third-youngest goal-scorer in LaLiga history (16 years, 304 days) when he scored against Osasuna in August. Only Fabrice Olinga (16 years, 98 days) and Iker Muniain (16 years, 289 days) were younger when they opened their respective accounts.

Quique Setien may only have been at Barcelona for just over a month, yet he will already know the importance of winning a Clasico.

The new Blaugrana coach takes his side to Real Madrid on Sunday, with his team having a two-point lead over Los Blancos at the top of the LaLiga table.

Barca are unbeaten against their great rivals in their previous seven games, while Madrid have not beaten them in the league since April 2016.

Here we look at how Barca's past five coaches have fared in their first LaLiga Clasicos.

 

PEP GUARDIOLA. BARCELONA 2-0 REAL MADRID. DECEMBER 13, 2008.

Both dugouts featured coaches taking charge of teams in a Clasico for the first time and it was Guardiola who got the better of Madrid's Juande Ramos.

Late goals from Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi earned Barcelona the victory as they moved 12 points clear of Madrid in the table too.

That victory occurred during a 10-game winning streak in LaLiga and it was no surprise that Barca, who beat Madrid 6-2 later in the season, went on to win the title.

TITO VILANOVA. BARCELONA 2-2 REAL MADRID. OCTOBER 7, 2012.

The two clubs had already met in the Supercopa de Espana at the start of the season, Madrid winning on away goals after both teams had won a leg apiece.

Their first league meeting of 2012-13 was all about Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi as both men scored twice in a 2-2 draw.

Ronaldo scored for a record sixth successive Clasico to put Madrid ahead and, after Messi had netted a brace, Los Blancos' Portuguese star took his tally to 160 goals in 155 games since his 2009 move from Manchester United with an equaliser.

 

GERARDO MARTINO. BARCELONA 2-1 REAL MADRID. OCTOBER 23, 2013.

All eyes were on new recruits Neymar and Gareth Bale and it was the former who scored first to set Barca on their way.

Alexis Sanchez would double that lead and though Jese Rodriguez pulled one back, Madrid fell to a defeat that left them six points behind Barcelona after just 10 league games.

Both teams would finish the campaign on 87 points, a total not good enough to win the league as Atletico Madrid claimed 90 to be crowned champions.

LUIS ENRIQUE. REAL MADRID 3-1 BARCELONA. OCTOBER 25, 2014.

The Blaugrana had claimed 22 points from the first 24 available but they suffered defeat at Santiago Bernabeu in October 2014.

Barca debutant Luis Suarez, back after a four-month ban for biting, set up Neymar for a fourth-minute opener but the home side stormed back.

An in-form Ronaldo levelled from the spot with his 21st goal of the season before Pepe and Karim Benzema scored in the second half. This remains Madrid's most recent home LaLiga win over Barcelona.

 

ERNESTO VALVERDE. REAL MADRID 0-3 BARCELONA. DECEMBER 23, 2017.

Los Blancos' awful start to the 2017-18 campaign continued as Barcelona moved 14 points clear of the defending champions with a comfortable win at the Bernabeu.

Suarez, Messi and Arturo Vidal all scored while Madrid, who had beaten Barca in both Supercopa de Espana legs at the beginning of the campaign, had Dani Carvajal dismissed for handball.

It was the first time Barcelona had won three successive league matches at the Bernabeu in Clasico history, and they come into Sunday's game with four straight victories at the ground.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are level on 72 LaLiga wins each in El Clasico, but Zinedine Zidane's side are facing an unwanted record on Sunday.

Madrid are winless against their rivals in seven league matches, meaning failure to beat Barca at the Santiago Bernabeu this weekend will set a new worst record for the club in Clasico history.

Not only that, but the Catalans are on a four-game winning streak in league trips to Madrid, and they have a man in charge who could be well placed to extend that run.

Quique Setien has faced Madrid eight times as a head coach in LaLiga and, as history shows, he has something of a knack when it comes to giving Los Blancos a tough time.

MADRID ARE SICK OF THE SIGHT OF SETIEN

"I'm blown by the north wind; I don't go down easily," Setien said last month amid growing unrest behind the scenes at Barca, as Eric Abidal and Lionel Messi began to play out a row in public.

That was not a problem of Setien's making, but Madrid would do well to heed his words - not that they need reminding about his pedigree.

In his eight previous visits to the Santiago Bernabeu as a coach, Setien has won two, drawn two, and lost four. That might not sound hugely impressive for a team such as, say, Barcelona - but what about Las Palmas and Real Betis?

In 2015-16, Setien's Canary Islanders went down 3-1 to Rafael Benitez's Madrid. The following season, with Zinedine Zidane in the opposite dugout, the scoreline was reversed, Las Palmas on the brink of a stunning victory only for Cristiano Ronaldo to score twice in the closing minutes.

His next visit came with Betis in September 2017, when Antonio Sanabria scored in the dying seconds to snatch a famous win. Then, on the final day of last season, Setien was celebrating again at the Bernabeu, this time as Loren Moron and Jese Rodriguez sealed a fully deserved 2-0 triumph.

"To the teams that I have been to lately," he said, "I have guaranteed only one thing, and that is that my team is going to play well." Madrid need no reminders.

STANDING UP TO BARCA SCRUTINY

One of the reasons behind Setien's appointment was to ensure a return to a Johan Cruyff-esque brand of football, removed from Ernesto Valverde's pragmatism.

Setien's method might just bring the boldness Barca will need to beat a Madrid team still smarting from the way they lost to Manchester City.

Setien has lost only half of his trips to the Bernabeu, the same ratio as Luis Enrique, who won two and lost two of his four games there. It's also a notable improvement on Valverde's record: he won nine of his 29 visits with Barca, Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol, losing 15 times and conceding 52 goals.

If there was any greater argument for Setien to stick to his principles of attacking, possession-based football, he need look no further than the man who made the approach his own in the modern game. Pep Guardiola has won 10, drawn four and lost only four of 18 games at the Bernabeu as a head coach.

Batten down the hatches – the north wind is coming.

Former Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde said he would prefer working in Australia rather than the Premier League.

Valverde was sacked by Barca in January, despite leading the Spanish giants to back-to-back LaLiga titles and Copa del Rey and Supercopa de Espana success.

Contemplating his next move as Valverde enjoys a break from football, a shock A-League gig is high on the 56-year-old's list.

"People ask me sometimes 'How about the Premier League?' and I say 'Well actually I'd like to go to Australia'," Valverde said.

"A career in football does not last forever and sometimes you think you have to take the opportunity to live in strange places."

Valverde referenced former Barca captain Andres Iniesta, who left Camp Nou for Japanese side Vissel Kobe in 2018.

"I applauded Andres when he told me he's going to Japan," added Valverde. I thought 'Wow, he gets to understand a different culture and different people', and I am also very interested in Japan.

"You can take great photos in Japan. There are many places I'd like to go to. We'll see what I end up doing, I haven't been out of work for very long so I don't have to decide anything yet, I haven't got a very clear idea at the moment.

"It's possible I'd go somewhere abroad. The truth is I like to do strange things so I wouldn't rule it out."

Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler is currently in charge of A-League outfit Brisbane Roar, while former Reds and Bayern Munich star Markus Babbel was working in Australia until he was sacked by Western Sydney Wanderers last month.

Ernesto Valverde is reluctant to consider whether he was harshly treated at Barcelona following his Camp Nou sacking in January.

The former Athletic Bilbao coach had been in charge of Barca since May 2017, winning LaLiga in each of his two full seasons, also claiming the Copa del Rey and Supercopa de Espana in 2018.

But the Blaugrana's Champions League humblings at the hands of Roma and Liverpool in consecutive campaigns, collapsing from healthy first-leg leads on both occasions, increased pressure on Valverde.

A Supercopa semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid ultimately spelled the end for Valverde, yet he is choosing not to spend too much time reflecting on his departure.

"I don't think about that," Valverde said at the Bilbao International Football Summit. "If I have been unfairly treated, I have to avoid it.

"It's about turning the page. In the end, we are thinking about what has happened and why. We're going to look forward, I don't have to look back."

Sporting director Eric Abidal sparked a row with Lionel Messi and chaos at Camp Nou last week as he suggested Barcelona players were not working hard enough for Valverde before the head coach's exit.

But Valverde would not speculate on the matter, adding: "Why did I leave? It is not a question for me.

"This is a part of our trade that you have to accept. Would I like it to be different? Yes, of course."

Valverde, who also represented Barcelona as a player, acknowledged he was well aware of the scrutiny he would face at the Catalan club upon his arrival.

"I was incredibly fortunate to coach Barca," he said. "I have been there as a player. I know what it means when you go to a club of this calibre. I am delighted to have been there.

"When you sign the contract, you know that you are important at the club and, from there, decide the results. We know that the coach is responsible for the players' performances."

Barcelona are three points behind rivals and LaLiga leaders Real Madrid under new coach Quique Setien, while they face Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League later this month.

Lionel Messi was given the chance to do his talking on the pitch on Thursday after he was named in the Barcelona starting line-up for their Copa del Rey clash with Athletic Bilbao.

Messi made headlines this week when criticising Eric Abidal, the Spanish club's director of football, for suggesting some Barca players were not working hard enough under previous boss Ernesto Valverde.

The Argentina international called out Abidal for his comments in the media, telling the Frenchman he should name the individuals who were not pulling their weight.

Such a reaction has raised questions over Messi's future at Camp Nou, though the 32-year-old was selected in the XI for the quarter-final tie against Athletic.

Ansu Fati was also chosen in the team, the teenager keeping his place after scoring both goals in Barcelona's 2-1 LaLiga win over Levante at the weekend.

Head coach Quique Setien made just one change from that side, bringing in Sergi Roberto to replace Antoine Griezmann.

Lionel Messi has sensationally hit out at Barcelona director of football Eric Abidal after he suggested some players were not working hard enough prior to Ernesto Valverde's dismissal.

Abidal granted several interviews to Spanish media outlets on Tuesday and, in a chat with Catalan publication Sport, the Frenchman outlined the thought process behind Valverde's sacking in January.

He revealed they began to consider a change of coach after 0-0 Clasico draw at home to Real Madrid on December 18, with the former left-back claiming he and his colleagues had identified "many players weren't satisfied nor working hard and there was also an internal communication problem".

But Messi, who is rarely at the centre of controversy at the club, has called Abidal out over his comments, telling him he should name individuals rather than tar everyone with the same brush.

Writing on his official Instagram account and specifically highlighting a section of Abidal's quotes, Messi said: "I honestly don't like to do these things, but I think everyone has to be responsible for their tasks and take care of their decisions.

"The players [are responsible for] what happens on the pitch and we are also the first to recognise when we are not playing well.

"Those responsible for the area of ​​sports management must also assume their responsibilities and especially for the decisions they make.

"Finally, I think that when talking about players we should give names, because if not we are all getting dirtied and feeding things that are said but aren't true."

Barca are next in action on Thursday in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals against Athletic Bilbao – coach Quique Setien is due to address the media in his usual pre-match news conference on Wednesday, with the comments of Abidal and Messi likely to be high on the agenda.

Ivan Rakitic admitted he considered leaving LaLiga champions Barcelona in January as the midfielder appeared to take aim at the club's board.

Rakitic was heavily linked to Serie A duo Juventus and Inter before the transfer window closed, while Manchester United were also reportedly interested.

It came as Rakitic was reportedly offered to Paris Saint-Germain as part of a deal to prise Neymar back to Camp Nou at the start of the season.

After Sunday's 2-1 win over Levante, Croatia veteran Rakitic vented his frustration.

"I thought about leaving in the January window," Rakitic, who played the entire game, said post-match.

"The treatment of [former head coach Ernesto] Valverde's staff wasn't the best.

"They were bad times but it's in the past now.

"I can say very clearly that there were things that I didn't like."

Ansu Fati's brace ensured Barca stayed within three points of leaders and rivals Real Madrid after 22 matches.

Rakitic has made 16 LaLiga appearances this season, and 24 across all competitions.

Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong says tactics have not changed much since Quique Setien took over as head coach from Ernesto Valverde.

Valverde was sacked following the 3-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana semi-finals, with Setien – an advocate of Johan Cruyff's possession-based approach – named as his successor on a two-and-a-half-year deal.

The 61-year-old appears to have had a prompt influence on Barca's style, the Catalans enjoying 82.4 per cent of the ball in the LaLiga win over Granada and 78 per cent in Wednesday's Copa del Rey victory in Ibiza.

Barca only managed three goals across those two games, though, suggesting they are yet to find a fluency to their attacking play – something for which Valverde was often criticised.

And De Jong says Setien has not made many alterations yet to the team's approach, telling reporters at a sponsor event on Thursday: "He doesn't ask anything concrete of me. The idea he has is the same as Valverde, the style of Barcelona possession.


"The only things that have changed are small details, but the intention is to have the ball.

"It seems like I've adapted easily, and I'm happy, but I know I can do much better. I also believe we have a lot of room to evolve as a team and we'll be better throughout the season."

De Jong signed for Barca last January but did not move until the end of the season, helping Ajax to the Eredivisie title and the Champions League semi-finals before his departure.

The Netherlands midfielder is now hoping to go further in European competition, perhaps as part of a treble.

"I want to win every trophy but, if I had to choose one, I'd choose the Champions League, although I want to lift LaLiga and the Copa del Rey," he said.

"Last year, Barcelona-Ajax would have been a beautiful final. Hopefully, I can be there this year."

Sergio Busquets refused to compare Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien after the Catalans made a winning start to life under their new head coach.

Barca returned to the top of LaLiga with a 1-0 win over a dogged Granada at Camp Nou on Sunday.

The home side enjoyed nearly 83 per cent of the possession but could not break down their visitors until Lionel Messi struck 76 minutes in after German Sanchez had been sent off.

Setien's variation of a 3-4-3 saw Barca monopolise the ball and push high up the pitch, a style more in keeping with the methods of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola than Valverde, who was sacked this month after losing to Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana.

Busquets was pleased with their display but would not enter into comparisons between the methods of Setien and Valverde, who eventually lost the faith of the fans and the board due to his more cautious approach.

"We were a solid team. We had control of the ball. They created little against us," he told Movistar.

"It's true that we struggled when they dropped deep but, in general terms, the team played a good game.

"It's not about comparing. Every coach has his style and his way of seeing football. You'll see what Setien asks us to do. We're not going to reveal it.

"We're delighted with what Ernesto did and we're delighted with Setien."

Setien also earned a cheer from the Camp Nou crowd for bringing on Masia graduate Riqui Puig, who found chances hard to come by under Valverde.

The 20-year-old won back possession on the edge of the Granada box in the build-up to the goal, and Busquets hopes it is just the start for the midfielder.

"He has a lot of things to mature, but it looks like he can be here [to boost the team]," Busquets added.

Barca are level with Real Madrid on 43 points at the top of the table after 20 games, with Atletico Madrid and Sevilla eight points adrift.

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