When Javi Lopez sat down to speak to Stats Perform News, Adelaide United's star recruit could not hide his smile as the interview shifted to a familiar face – Mauricio Pochettino.

Pochettino was the man who gave Lopez his senior debut with Espanyol in 2009.

Lopez never looked back as he went on to captain Espanyol and, until 2020, spent his entire senior career with the Periquitos before their shock relegation from LaLiga last season.

As Lopez settles in Australia and Pochettino takes charge of Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain, the impact of the former Espanyol head coach is not lost on the versatile 34-year-old.

"What can I tell you about my experience with Mauricio Pochettino? He was the coach that made me debut in the first division, thanks to him afterwards I could have a great career in Espanyol for 11 years. I am thankful and I only have good words for him," Lopez told Stats Perform News.

"His evolution hasn't surprised me because I could see that he was going to be a top coach because his way of coaching, because he surrounded himself with great staff. He has no limits, he will coach the best teams in the world for sure."

Like former Espanyol team-mate and skipper Victor Sanchez – who is now playing for A-League outfit Western United – Lopez finds himself playing out of Europe for the first time and in Australia.

Adelaide have a rich history with Spaniards – Barcelona legend Guillermo Amor led a Reds team boasting countrymen Isaias, Pablo Sanchez and Sergio Cirio to the club's first A-League championship almost five years ago.

Lopez is the latest Spaniard to call Adelaide home, thanks to some help from ex-Reds captain Isaias.

"After many years of my career, I wanted to change, a big one. When the opportunity of coming here aroused I talked to Isaias, with Juande, who was playing for Perth Glory and is a great friend of mine," Lopez said. "I talked to my family and we decided to come here."

"I think that the A-League is a very strong league physically, quite unknown in Spain but people would be surprised of its great level, the matches are very entertaining, dynamic, physical," he continued. "From what I could see here, the club and the coach [Carl Veart] are doing a great job, the team is very good."

While Adelaide have won back-to-back FFA Cup titles, the club have fallen short in the A-League since reigning supreme in 2016.

Adelaide missed out on the finals last season, and that is something Lopez wants to change in 2020-21 – the veteran buoyed by four points from two games to start to the coronavirus-interrupted campaign.

"Expectations are clear: to be in the top six, to play play-offs and to finish as high as possible. Why not? I have said that before, the team is very well compensated and very competitive," Lopez said. "On the first match of the league against Western United I could confirm how well we work together thanks to the job of the coach.

"I loved the team's proposal, how they played, the intensity, how they fought for every ball, the pressure after losing the ball, I really liked it. Like [Atletico Madrid head coach] Diego Simeone says, his now worldwide famous sentence: 'We need to go match by match'. But the expectations are to finish in the top six, probably something difficult because in football all teams compete. If we keep performing at the previous level I think that is possible."

Lopez brings a wealth of experience to Adelaide – he ranks third for most Espanyol appearances across all competitions, only behind Raul Tamudo and Pochettino following 11 years at RCDE Stadium.

Wearing the captain's armband, Lopez featured in 17 LaLiga matches in 2019-20 as Espanyol were painfully condemned to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993-94.

"To talk about Espanyol makes me feel emotional, they are an historic club of LaLiga," Lopez said. "I might sound too romantic, but for me Espanyol is everything: my club, my house… I was there 13 years. I gained a feeling that will remain with me forever. If I say it is an honour I might be short, if I say that I am proud I might be short.

"It was a dream to play for Espanyol and to be able to take the captain's armband during many years. Even if I say that it was a dream, I am being short in the description, it has been more than a dream. I had to work really hard to reach that point. I always gave my best, my conscious is very peaceful on this regard. I cannot tell much more, except for that I would love that we would return to the first division at the end of this season."

Lopez also experienced the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Lionel Messi's Barcelona – and he added: "Sincerely it was one of the games that we wait with hunger. For all of us it was our game, we lived in a city where there is much difference in term of repercussion and media. Barcelona always gathers much more attention than Espanyol, so it was always a chance to reclaim ourselves as a great club.

"We are weapons, with our feelings to our colours, which allow us to compete with anyone. It's true that in the last decade there were very unbalanced derbies because of their great team, but still it was our chance to reclaim how proud we feel about us, our unique feeling. Our pride to be 'Pericos'." 

Liverpool are reportedly interested in Sergio Ramos, while Real Madrid have a successor for Zinedine Zidane lined up.

Premier League champions Liverpool are linked with centre-backs due to long-term injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.

And Ramos is apparently a target.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL INTERESTED IN RAMOS

Liverpool are interested in Real Madrid defender Ramos, according to El Chiringuito.

The 34-year-old's future at Madrid is uncertain with his contract expiring at the end of the season.

Also at Liverpool, Fabrizio Romano reports they are yet to open talks to sign Lille defender Sven Botman.

 

ROUND-UP

- Zidane was under pressure at Real Madrid earlier in the season, and the LaLiga giants have his replacement in mind. AS reports Raul – who is in charge of Real Madrid Castilla – is seen as the natural heir to the Frenchman.

Christian Eriksen is expected to leave Inter, but just where to remains to be seen. CalcioMercato reports the Serie A giants are yet to receive an offer for the midfielder, who has been linked to Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal.

- With Diego Costa having departed, Atletico Madrid are said to be looking for another forward. The Daily Mail reports Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik is at the top of their list, while Espanyol's Raul de Tomas and Real Betis' Loren Moron are of interest.

Manchester City are linked to Barcelona star Lionel Messi, but they may have a younger version to target. talkSPORT reports the Premier League club are plotting a move for 17-year-old Estudiantes winger Dario Sarmiento, who has been dubbed "mini Messi".

- Sergio Romero looks set to leave Manchester United. The Manchester Evening News reports the goalkeeper has bid farewell to his team-mates ahead of an expected move to Boca Juniors.

After eight years and almost 300 appearances for Espanyol, Victor Sanchez is embarking on his first journey outside of Europe.

Sanchez now calls Australia's Western United home following Espanyol's relegation from LaLiga in 2019-20, having spent 14 years in Spain and a brief stint with Neuchatel Xamax.

The versatile 33-year-old had not envisaged packing up and relocating his family 16,816km away to Melbourne, but the coronavirus pandemic changed his plans as Western United came calling.

"It is a league that wasn't in my plans and I hadn't thought about it because it is a very far country as well," Sanchez, who ranks fourth for most Espanyol appearances behind Raul Tamudo, Mauricio Pochettino and Javi Lopez, told Stats Perform News.

"But when I had the chance, looking a little to everything and this league's level, because it is very well organised league, serious league and serious country also regarding coronavirus, I thought it was a great opportunity for me and the family as well."

Sanchez is among the growing number of Spaniards moving to Australia after former Espanyol team-mate Lopez also joined Adelaide United.

Former Athletic Bilbao pair Markel Susaeta and Benat have reunited at Macarthur FC for their inaugural season, while ex-Getafe attacker Diego Castro continues to star with Perth Glory.

"I didn't know much about the A-League," Sanchez said. "When I had the chance to come here I started looking at it and I also spoke with people that had played here: with Juande that was in Perth, with Markel Susaeta that was in Melbourne City last year, [former Western Sydney Wanderers striker] Oriol Riera and [former Melbourne Victory midfielder] Raul Baena.

"Footballers that have played here and everyone was telling me the same thing, that it is a spectacular experience, a great, great experience and life level, family level, and then because it is a league that, even though doesn't have the level of the Spanish league, is still a league physically strong and above all very well organised. Very serious league and I believe that at my age, with my career, I don't want surprises and I wanted to come to a league where things were properly done."

Sanchez brings a wealth of experience to Mark Rudan's Western United, who reached the A-League semi-finals in their first season in the competition.

The Catalonia-born midfielder – also adaptable in all defensive positions – emerged from Barcelona's youth system in 2005 and eventually made his debut for the first team in 2008.

Under the leadership of Pep Guardiola, Sanchez was part of the star-studded Barca squad that won the Champions League, LaLiga and Copa del Rey in 2008-09 – playing alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Yaya Toure, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Samuel Eto'o.

"My relationship with him was very good," Sanchez said as he discussed working with Guardiola at Camp Nou. "I was with him in the second team, Barca B, and were promoted from the third division to the Second B Division, from the fourth league to the third league in Spain and it was truly a beautiful year, the first one of him as a coach.

"He then moved to the first team and he promoted Sergio Busquets and me to the first team as well, even though we still belonged to the youth team, but to be within the first team dynamic. That year was truly incredible, the season 2008-09 when we won Liga, Copa and Champions League, a fantasy year. Afterwards I have kept relation with him when I have played against him and we have talked quite a lot.

"Now I haven't talked to him for a long time, but he is very innovative in everything he does. He is a genius, there isn't many like him. I was lucky enough to share a locker room with Guardiola."

Sanchez made seven LaLiga appearances in 2008-09, and 12 across all competitions, before being loaned out to Xerex and Getafe in 2009-10 and 2010-11. A six-month stint in Switzerland followed, but after 16 games the Barcelona native returned home.

However, this time, Sanchez – among a select few to play for both clubs – crossed the divide to link up with neighbours Espanyol in 2012.

"It's different to play for Barcelona than to play for Espanyol. The rivalry of the derbies. I think it is lived differently from Barcelona than from Espanyol," Sanchez said. "From the Barcelona perspective, rivalry exists, but nothing compares from the Espanyol perspective towards Barca.

"At Espanyol, for you it's like a final or a title to be able to win against Barcelona. Nowadays the economic differences are huge, so it is very difficult to win a match against Barcelona playing for Espanyol. I was there like nine years and was lucky to win one derby, in the Copa del Rey, in the first leg. When that happens it's when you realise how difficult it is. You also notice how they want to win too even though they see the rivalry differently."

Sanchez joined forces with Pochettino as the Argentine coach made a name for himself at Espanyol before moving on to Southampton and Tottenham.

"He is a great coach," Sanchez, who backed the former Spurs boss to make the move to Real Madrid, added. "I was with him a short time. I arrived at Espanyol when he was there and it can be said that he bought me for the club. You could already see that he had what it takes to be a great coach with his ideas, how he worked with the team, he was very demanding.

"I think it was clear he would reach the top. I had a very good relationship with him. I was like six or eight months with him and it was a great coach in my career."

While Pochettino eventually departed for Premier League side Southampton less than a year later, Sanchez continued to help fly the flag for Espanyol.

Sanchez went to battle in the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Barca – renewing acquaintances with ex-Blaugrana team-mates Messi and Pique in heated showdowns – the rivalry coming to a head in a fiercely contested 1-1 draw at RCDE Stadium in February 2018.

Espanyol's Sanchez went head-to-head with six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi in wet conditions, and he added: "Messi is a very special player, different than the rest. I think he particularly likes to play against Espanyol.

"It is true that we played a very hot derby that ended up in a tie with Pique's goal around minute 80. It was raining, a hard match, beautiful, sentimental. Messi is the best player of the world, above the rest. To win against him, to steal the ball off him or make things difficult for him is a personal triumph. Because as I said, he is very above from the rest."

Fast forward to December 2020 and Sanchez is determined to taste success with Western United after experiencing Espanyol's painful relegation to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993.

"I want to win, be on the top and make the team to be as high as possible. The A-League is economically very equal between teams, a bit similar to MLS where budget is close," said Sanchez, who had a passing accuracy of 80.5 per cent in 25 LaLiga appearances last season.

"If you make a good team, a good year and if you have confidence, you can fight for anything. Hopefully we will be lucky enough to come back to the play-offs and this time be able to be in semi-finals or the final and can be champions."

Sanchez, who registered 116 recoveries and 27 interceptions, while he won possession on 116 occasions in 2019-20, added: "I have signed for two years but my plan is to stay more and hopefully that will be possible. After my experience in Spain having played quite a lot of matches, a long career, I was looking for a change. It will be also positive for us to learn the language. My English is basic at the moment.

"After 13 or 14 years playing in LaLiga it was a bit exhausting."

Former Manchester City full-back Pablo Zabaleta has retired from football.

The 35-year-old has been without a club since being released by West Ham at the end of June.

"After 18 years as a professional footballer I took the decision to retire from playing football," Zabaleta said in a social media post.

"These have been wonderful years that gave me the opportunity to enjoy unique and unforgettable moments.

"Forever I will thank all the people that shared the journey with me; clubs, team-mates, coaches and in particular my family and all my friends.

"With a lot of emotions I leave behind one of the best stages of my life. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!"

Zabaleta made 594 appearances at club level, starting with San Lorenzo in Argentina before moving to LaLiga with Espanyol.

He joined City in 2008 shortly before the takeover by the Abu Dhabi investment group and went on to become one of the club's most important players in a nine-year spell, popularly known as a 'warrior' figure.

Zabaleta won two Premier League titles, two EFL Cups and the FA Cup and was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in 2012-13.

He signed for West Ham in 2017 and made a further 73 appearances in England's top flight.

In 303 Premier League games in total, he recorded 953 tackles, the most of any player in the competition since his debut 12 years ago.

A winner of Olympic gold in 2008, Zabaleta won 58 senior caps for Argentina and was part of the side that finished runners-up at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Bayern Munich have bolstered their midfield by bringing in Marc Roca from Espanyol for a reported €15million.

Roca impressed last season despite Espanyol's relegation from LaLiga and has signed for the European champions on a five-year deal.

The 23-year-old made 121 appearances in total for Espanyol, scoring three goals.

"I am very happy. A dream come true for me," Roca told Bayern's official website. "In my opinion, Bayern is the best club in the world and has a strong tradition. I am very happy to represent the colours of this great club."

Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic said: "We are very happy to have signed Marc Roca. He is an outstanding fit for our team both as a player and a person, and will continue to develop here with us. We are sure he will give our team great value."

Roca comes in after Bayern sold Thiago Alcantara to Premier League champions Liverpool in September.

Michael Cuisance also looked set to leave for Leeds United, but the move broke down reportedly due to complications with the Frenchman's medical. However, he has also been linked with Marseille.

Mauricio Pochettino has seemingly opened the door to potentially coaching Barcelona after expressing regret for showing them "disrespect" with comments he made in 2018.

Pochettino's managerial career is most synonymous with Tottenham, where he spent five years until 2019, but Espanyol is where he first made his name and spent most of his playing days.

Across two spells as a player, Pochettino represented Espanyol for just shy of 10 years and then became the club's head coach in 2009, three years after retiring with Los Periquitos.

It was this association that was often referenced by Spanish football commentators and columnists when suggesting Pochettino would not coach Espanyol's rivals Barcelona.

Pochettino also expressed reticence to such an idea on several occasions, but most recently in 2018 when he claimed he would never coach Barca, Arsenal or Rosario Central due to his close ties to Espanyol, Spurs and Newell's Old Boys.

"I would prefer to work on my farm in Argentina than go to work in certain places," he said.

But he has now backtracked on that grand statement.

"I have to explain it well," he told El Pais. "I was in Barcelona that year and I met [Barca president, Josep Maria] Bartomeu in a bar.

"We greeted each other because we were taking the children to the same school and we were talking for five minutes. That generated a rumour that set off alarms because there were more teams that wanted us.

"When they [reporters] asked me [about the meeting], I wanted to settle it drastically. I didn't want to disrespect Barcelona.

"You can say things differently. Espanyol has made a name for me, but I'm not arrogant and I didn't like making a statement like that.

"Maybe now I wouldn't because in life you never know what will happen."

Pochettino has been out of a job since November last year when he was sacked by Spurs, just a few months after leading the club to the Champions League final.

Barca are currently coached by Quique Setien, but following his failure to retain the LaLiga title after replacing Ernesto Valverde earlier this year, reports suggest he must win the Champions League just to keep his job.

Barcelona head coach Quique Setien lauded Luis Suarez after the star forward moved third on the club's all-time goalscoring list thanks to his match-winning display against Espanyol.

Suarez surpassed Ladislau Kubala with his 195th Barca goal from 278 appearances in Wednesday's 1-0 win over LaLiga rivals Espanyol, who were relegated as a result.

Only two players have scored more goals for Barca – superstar captain Lionel Messi (630) and Cesar (232) – following his 56th-minute strike at Camp Nou midweek.

And Setien was full of praise for Suarez, who arrived from Premier League giants Liverpool in 2014.

"It wasn't difficult to figure out Luis Suarez was eventually going to score goals again as he continues to play games," Setien told reporters.

"When you're not playing for a while you need time to get back into your rhythm. That's something you only get through minutes on the pitch.

"He knows how to score goals and he's always showed that throughout his career. He did it, which moves him up to third in Barcelona's all-time scoring list and you can't take that away from him."

Barca moved within a point of bitter rivals and leaders Real Madrid, who have a game in hand as they prepare for Friday's match against Deportivo Alaves.

Setien's Barca are nine games unbeaten following back-to-back wins, though they were far from their best after Sunday's 4-1 rout at Villarreal.

"I think we certainly weren't brilliant," Setien said. "It was a difficult match. We managed to win and we'd all like to repeat, of course, the same performance we produced against Villarreal but it's not easy.

"You always need to take your opponents into account. In any case, I'm very happy with the win because I watch practically all the matches in LaLiga and I see a lot of teams are winning 1-0 and finding it a struggle. It's a very level playing field right now."

Barca substitute Ansu Fati was sent off after coming on at the start of the second half, while Espanyol's Pol Lozano was also dismissed.

Five minutes after coming on teenager Fati was heading off again, a VAR review upgrading his caution to a red card as he was punished when a high right foot caught Fernando Calero.

"He was very humble afterwards," Setien added on Fati. "He came to talk to me. He felt very bad about what happened.

"He wasn't provoked. He went in to win the ball. After I watched it, the challenge looked harder than it actually was. It's a moment that could have been avoided. When he goes to win the ball I saw he tried to fold his leg back so there wouldn't be any contact, but the decision was made.

"He'll be affected by this and we'll see what the punishment is but it's a moment that I don't blame him for."

Barcelona star Luis Suarez surpassed Ladislau Kubala for third spot on the club's all-time goalscoring list.

Suarez leapfrogged Kubala with his 195th Barca goal from 278 appearances in Wednesday's 1-0 win over LaLiga rivals Espanyol.

The 33-year-old forward broke the deadlock in the 56th minute to move Barca within a point of leaders Real Madrid, while relegating Espanyol.

Suarez already eclipsed Josep Samitier's 184-goal haul in October, with only two players above him – superstar captain Lionel Messi (630) and Cesar (232).

Since arriving from Premier League giants Liverpool in 2014, Suarez has flourished and even contributed 97 assists for Barca.

Suarez has won four LaLiga titles, the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup among other honours at Camp Nou.

Quique Setien is unworried about Real Madrid after Barcelona moved back within a point of their rivals with a 1-0 win over Espanyol on Wednesday.

Both teams were reduced to 10 men in the derby clash at Camp Nou before Luis Suarez scored the 56th-minute winner.

Barca have played one more game than rivals Madrid, who are a point clear at the top and host Deportivo Alaves on Friday.

But Setien is refusing to worry about Zinedine Zidane's side, with Madrid having four league games left to play.

"It is not our business. We have to worry about ourselves," the Barca head coach told Movistar.

"What Madrid does we will see."

After Ansu Fati was sent off in the 50th minute, Pol Lozano saw red for Espanyol three minutes later.

Setien accepted his team were below their best three days after crushing Villarreal, with Suarez's goal boosting their title chances.

"We did not have a great match. They have made it difficult for us in defence," he said.

"We have not found spaces nor have we had precision to handle ourselves."

Barcelona's busy run of fixtures continues with a clash against Real Valladolid on Saturday.

Luis Suarez said Barcelona must be ready if LaLiga leaders Real Madrid drop points as the title race nears its conclusion.

Two-time defending champions Barca kept their slim title hopes alive with a 1-0 victory over rivals Espanyol on Wednesday.

Suarez scored the only goal of the match in the 56th minute to relegate Espanyol midweek, while moving Barca to within a point of Madrid.

Madrid can restore their four-point advantage against Deportivo Alaves on Friday and while Barca only have three games remaining, star forward Suarez insisted the Catalan giants have to be ready to pounce on any slip-ups.

"What we have to do is win our next three games," Suarez, who moved third on Barca's list of all-time scorers, said afterwards. "Whatever Madrid do is up to them.

"If the rival drops points then fantastic, we have to think about being there if they do."

Barca were far from their best at Camp Nou, where substitute Ansu Fati was sent off after coming on at the start of the second half, while Espanyol's Pol Lozano was also dismissed.

But Barca managed to extend their unbeaten run to nine games following back-to-back triumphs.

Suarez added: "We knew it was going to be difficult. We knew their situation. We have to be aware of the fact that we put in a great performance on Sunday and were still feeling the consequences of that physically. The important thing is to win and to get three more points.

"I think if I didn't score in the first half or Barcelona didn't create more chances, that's virtue of the rival, who were very well organised.

"I think they make it difficult for Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba to push up on the flanks. But eventually the chance came and I'm delighted to be able to take it.

"I didn't see Ansu Fati's [red card] because there was a player in the way and the other one I didn't see either, there was another rival blocking my view.

"But in both cases VAR – which is there to help in these kind of situations – was able to help the referee to take the right decisions."

After his goalscoring display in the 4-1 rout of Villarreal on Sunday, Antoine Griezmann was handed another start alongside Suarez and Lionel Messi.

"It's the manager who takes the decision," Suarez said. "He wanted to find a formula, it's the formula he's trying at the moment. It's the first year of Antoine here so we know it's difficult – the adaptation period. The other day we could all enjoy a brilliant performance from Antoine Griezmann."

Espanyol knew anything but a derby victory at Camp Nou on Wednesday would relegate them to the second tier for the first time since 1994 but they were unable to preserve their top-flight status.

"I think today's match I'm proud of my team-mates, we had chances," Javi Lopez said. "If I'm here now it's to ask for forgiveness from our fans because we know these are tough moments for us but also for our fans. It's been a season in which nothing has gone right for us.

"I thank the fans but apologise again because it's the players' fault. We apologise again and tell them we are committed to coming back stronger and will fight for this club badge. That's all I've got to say – sorry to the fans, that's the minimum we can do.

"I think we all assume the responsibility in the changing room. We're most responsible for this. The players are out on the pitch and the ones who fault it is. These are really tough moments for all of us. We just have to be absolutely committed to come back stronger than ever before. I'm convinced that we will."

Luis Suarez's second-half strike consigned Barcelona's rivals Espanyol to a 1-0 defeat and relegation from LaLiga in a match that saw two red cards.

Espanyol knew anything but a derby victory at Camp Nou on Wednesday would relegate them to the second tier for the first time since 1994.

They were given hope when substitute Ansu Fati was sent off five minutes after coming on at the start of the second half, only for the numbers to be swiftly evened up when Pol Lozano was also dismissed.

Suarez capped off a crazy six-minute passage by scoring the only goal as Barca moved a point behind leaders Real Madrid, who have a game in hand, in the title race.

In an all-or-nothing game for Espanyol, they were the better side in the first half, while Barca failed to have a single shot on target.

Adrian Embarba was the first to test Marc-Andre ter Stegen when he got in down the right, only for the German goalkeeper to thwart his effort with an outstretched right foot.

Espanyol continued to have joy on the counter attack and after Ter Stegen prevented a Clement Lenglet own goal, Didac Vila's effort hit the outside of the post just before half-time.

Quique Setien hoped Fati's half-time introduction would have an impact on his team and it certainly did, though not how he had imagined.

Five minutes after coming on the teenager was heading off again, a VAR review upgrading his caution to a red card as he was punished when a high right foot caught Fernando Calero.

However, Espanyol's one-man advantage lasted only three minutes, as Lozano joined Fati in being dismissed.

As was the case in Fati's instance, Lozano was initially awarded a yellow card that was changed to a red as replays showed he caught Gerard Pique on the shin when going over the top of the ball.

And it was Barcelona who adjusted better to going a man down as Suarez soon put them ahead, following up when Lionel Messi's effort was blocked after a brilliant Antoine Griezmann flick.

A vicious Messi volley was superbly saved by Diego Lopez and Espanyol could not muster an equaliser, let alone the two goals they needed, as their fate was sealed.

 

What does it mean? Espanyol go down with a fight

Espanyol have looked doomed for months, but they at least showed plenty of fight, even if it was a case of too little, too late.

It might be too late for Barca in the title race too with just three games to play, though Setien will at least be encouraged by Griezmann, Messi and Suarez's role in their goal ahead of the Champions League resumption next month.

Griezi on the eye again

A lovely goal at Villarreal last time out suggested Griezmann may finally be finding his feet at Camp Nou, and he had an instrumental role in the winner here too.

Though he will not be credited with either a goal or an assist, his vision to initially tee up Messi was fantastic.

Youthful naivety from Lozano

Fati deserves criticism for raising his foot way too high to prompt his red card, but Lozano had to be smarter when he was dismissed moments later in his first LaLiga start.

To rush into a challenge with Pique in midfield was ill-judged and Espanyol barely had any opportunity to make use of their one-man advantage as a result.

What's next?

Barcelona travel to Real Valladolid next on Saturday while their city rivals host Eibar the following day in their penultimate top-flight home game.

Barcelona boss Quique Setien is clinging to the hope Real Madrid will falter to allow for a late twist in the title race.

Despite holding a narrow LaLiga lead when the season resumed, Barcelona have slipped four points behind their great rivals and only four rounds of games remain.

A coronation for Zinedine Zidane's team appears inevitable, given they have won seven straight fixtures since the league's suspension ended.

But Setien is refusing to wave the white flag, saying on Tuesday: "Of course we can still win LaLiga. Mathematics says it. We have to keep hope until the final day.

"We have to look at what we can do. Win, leave good feelings, make progress. And if not in this situation, everything we do is worth it for the next one."

Should Barcelona take the title battle down to the final day, that would be a small triumph in itself given current circumstances.

They have the Champions League resumption to come in August, then a new LaLiga season after that, and Setien wants to see signs of progress from a team who have struggled since COVID-19 caused the 2019-20 campaign to be stalled for three months.

Victory in the home derby against Espanyol on Wednesday is surely imperative.

 

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has indicated he plans to keep Setien on for the 2020-21 season, with the coach speaking of "the circus that is football" as speculation surrounded his position.

"The club are happy with the work we do, I focus on that," he said in a news conference. "I don't value whether we win a game or lose others. I don't live daily, I work with more perspective.

"We are quite happy, as I have said on numerous occasions. Results are one thing and the feelings are another."

Setien feels his team are performing better than their results have been indicating, speaking of "very good moments" in the matches where Barcelona have dropped points. Three draws, alongside the four wins they have achieved since LaLiga returned, have been costly.

Coach Setien was cheered by Antoine Griezmann's delicious chip in Sunday's 4-1 win at Villarreal, where the Frenchman was given a more central attacking role than in previous games and thrived on the responsibility.

"He has enough ability to show his level," Setien said. "The other day there was a moment of inspiration and the players who played on the inside and the threat on the outside were closely linked. Sergi Roberto helped and did things very well."

Zinedine Zidane believes Karim Benzema's incredible assist in Real Madrid's win over Espanyol may be one of the plays of the season.

Benzema produced a moment of magic to set up Casemiro in Madrid's 1-0 victory that sent them two points clear atop LaLiga on Sunday.

The forward's outrageous backheel through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa gave Casemiro a simple finish.

Madrid head coach Zidane was unsurprised and believes Benzema's skill could go down as one of the best moments of the campaign.

"It doesn't surprise me. He is a player who invents things," he said, via AS.

"And then Casemiro is there. It can be one of the plays of the championship."

The goal lifted Madrid two points clear of rivals Barcelona with six games remaining in the LaLiga season.

Zidane said he expected the title race to go down to the final day of the campaign.

"Six games are missing and this will be decided on the last day. You have to fight in every game," he said.

"Today the second played against the last. You never know in this league."

Madrid are next in action against Getafe on Thursday.

Casemiro was unsurprised by Karim Benzema's incredible assist in Real Madrid's 1-0 win over Espanyol in LaLiga on Sunday.

Benzema produced a moment of magic to set up Casemiro as Madrid moved two points clear at the top of LaLiga.

The forward's 117th assist of his Madrid career came via an outrageous backheel through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa to give Casemiro a simple finish.

Casemiro said he knew Benzema was capable of such brilliance, paying tribute to the 32-year-old.

"What Karim did, for me is normal. We all know that the qualities he has aren't of a number nine, but of a number 10," the midfielder said.

"I know him, I know how he plays and the quality he possesses. I asked for the ball in space, and his backheel pass was incredible.

"It's Karim's goal. It's the backheel pass of a number 10 and you have to congratulate him."

With six games remaining, Madrid are on track to win LaLiga, holding a two-point lead over rivals Barcelona.

Casemiro is eager to help deliver Madrid a first LaLiga title since 2016-17.

"There is still a lot left, but we know that each match is a final," he said. "We want this league."

Madrid are next in action with a clash against Getafe on Thursday.

Real Madrid star Karim Benzema said he knew Casemiro was waiting on his ingenious match-winning assist against Espanyol, explaining: "I see football like that!"

Benzema stole the show as LaLiga leaders Madrid moved two points clear of bitter rivals Barcelona atop the table with a 1-0 win over bottom side Espanyol on Sunday.

At the end of a first half in which Madrid had hammered on the door without finding a way past former goalkeeper Diego Lopez, Benzema came up with a moment of sublime skill.

Benzema played a backheel through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa to grant Casemiro a simple finish for the decisive goal on the stroke of half-time.

"It was a good play, but the most important thing is the goal afterwards," Benzema said afterwards. "Casemiro gets it right. We are very happy."

Pressed on the piece of skill, the French forward added: "I see football like that! I knew Casemiro was coming from behind."

The goal was as important as it was arresting, as Madrid capitalised on Barca's failure to beat lowly Celta Vigo on Saturday.

"Of course we look at what Barca do, even though we are very focused on us," Benzema said. "I am not going to talk about Barca, but we are fine.

"We go from match to match and each game is a final for the LaLiga title.

"We are happy and we wanted to win. We left very psyched to get three points to take home."

Madrid have won all five of their matches since LaLiga resumed in June following the coronavirus-enforced break.

Zinedine Zidane's in-form Madrid play host to Getafe in the Spanish capital on Thursday.

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