It was billed as one of the most important Clasicos in years. The outcome, it was said, could set the tone for the entire season and, by extension, the future of Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian's revelation he wanted to leave was still ringing in the ears of Barca directors two months on in October last year. While they'd managed to keep hold of him, owing to Messi's reluctance to drag his club through the courts, his form on the pitch hardly suggested he was at peace.

One goal in four LaLiga matches heading into that October 24 Clasico was his slowest start to a season since 2005-06 when he was a fresh-faced teenager still trying to establish himself.

What followed at Camp Nou on that Saturday looked set to plunge Barca further into crisis, as the Catalans lost 3-1 to Madrid despite dominating much of the match. It was a bad look for new coach Ronald Koeman – already under-fire – as well as Messi, whose failure to score took him to 515 minutes without a goal against Los Blancos in LaLiga, just seven shy of his worst ever barren run in El Clasico.

Messi's proviso for staying beyond the end of 2020-21 was that Barca had to look capable of winning titles; while supporters felt hard done by given Sergio Ramos' theatrics when winning a penalty, there was little in the Blaugrana's performance to suggest a title tilt was realistic.

But here we are, a little over five months later, and the outlook is rather different.

Koeman gets to know his squad

"Koeman explodes," read the front page of Mundo Deportivo the next day. "A Clasico robbery," declared Sport. Both publications listed their grievances with the result but largely glossed over Barca's issues.

This was more than just a one-off defeat in a Clasico, it was the second of four league losses in a run of just seven games. That run, culminating in a shock loss to promoted Cadiz in December, saw them suffer at least four defeats in the first 10 LaLiga matches of the season for only the second time since 1988.

 

Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Koeman.

His decision to implement his favoured 4-2-3-1 system wasn't necessarily surprising, but given Barca's attachment to 4-3-3, it was certainly seen as a bold move.

To say that it flatly didn't work wouldn't be entirely accurate, but Koeman's subsequent search for alternative set-ups speaks to the fact Barca weren't convincing.

Since suffering back-to-back defeats to Cadiz and Juventus at the start of December, Koeman has largely – depending on personnel and opponents – switched between 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1.

While their form hasn't been perfect across all fronts, they've not lost a LaLiga game since. The move to a back three in particular has appeared to resonate with the Barca squad, winning six of seven league – and conceding just three goals – matches when operating with such a defensive structure.

That 85.7 per cent win ratio is a significant improvement on the 63.6 per cent recorded in games where they've deployed a back four, suggesting the three-man defence allows for greater harmony across the team.

Frenkie finds his feet

Koeman's tinkering has helped bring the best out of several areas of the team, but most notably the centre of midfield. While Sergio Busquets has received widespread praise, arguably the two main benefactors have been Frenkie de Jong and Pedri.

De Jong's first season at Barca, while by no means bad, was hardly scintillating, and Koeman's arrival initially saw him placed in a double pivot, though activity maps show he often got drawn out to the left.

But over the season as a whole, compared to 2019-20, De Jong has clearly made good strides and is enjoying greater attacking freedom.

As across the entirety of last season, the former Ajax man has made 29 league appearances in 2020-21, but his goal involvements have enjoyed a boost (two goals, two assists in 2019-20, three goals and four assists in 2020-21). Added to that, he's averaging 1.1 key passes per game, up from 0.9.

 

But it's De Jong's general influence that has increased most, with his 87.1 touches per game up considerably from 66.2, while he averages 25.3 carries per game, as opposed to 17.7 last term.

Not only have De Jong's team-mates seemingly placed greater trust in him, but he's relishing the added responsibility. The Netherlands midfielder is seeing much more of the ball and using his increased influence effectively.

No player in LaLiga has covered more distance carrying the ball upfield than De Jong (4,375.8 metres), while he also leads the league in total progressive carries (405) and is second only to Pau Torres on progressive carries of 10 yards or more (168).

Indeed, De Jong ranks towards the top of almost every metric relating to ball carries, highlighting just how important he is to Barca getting up the pitch.

The heir apparent

It quickly became clear Pedri was going to establish himself in the Barca first-team squad following his move from Las Palmas, convincing the club they would be better served keeping the teenager around than sending him out on loan.

But it's only been since Koeman altered his position that he's really come to life, essentially nailing down a place in the starting XI.

For the first few months of the season, Pedri often operated from a slightly wider position, cutting in from the left onto his right foot. Now, while he still often drifts out to the left flank, the Spain international is spending more time in the central zone outside the opposition's penalty area.

 

He is averaging 26.9 more touches per game since the first 10 matches of the season – understandable given he's operating closer to the thick of the action – and that in turn has helped him create 1.4 chances per game, up from 0.8.

But to focus solely on that would be to do Pedri a disservice. His talent as a fine passer and nimble mover make him the ideal attacking conduit, as evidenced by his 132 shot-ending open-play sequences – ranking third among LaLiga midfielders to have played 900 minutes or more this term.

In fact, of these players, Pedri is involved in the most shot-ending open-play sequences per 90 minutes (6.2).

Andres Iniesta comparisons might be considered a little over the top at this point, but there's certainly no doubt the teenager is thriving. Maybe he could be the World Cup winner's heir...

Messi's miraculous revival

The chief instigator in Barca's revival has, of course, been Messi himself. Having only scored four times, with no assists, in Barca's first 10 league games this term, he's netted 19 and laid on eight in 17 since.

It has been a remarkable resurgence and central to Barca's climb up the table, with the Blaugrana's unbeaten run undoubtedly inspired by their talisman.

Messi's improvement has been almost inexplicable because his shooting habits haven't changed massively. After all, his shots per game are only up slightly from 4.9 to 6.0, with this increase spread across his efforts from both inside the box (2.9 shots per 90, up from 2.4) and outside the area (3.4 shots per 90, up from 2.7).

Again, there's not a huge difference in his expected goals (xG) value per shot, with his efforts worth 0.11 on average until December 6 and 0.13 since, yet Messi has gone from underperforming his overall xG (four goals, 5.6 xG) to massively overperforming (19 goals, 12.9 xG).

 

One potential explanation comes from looking at his shot maps over the two periods in question. Messi does now appear to be getting into the centre of the box more often, with as many as 10 of his 18 goals (excluding penalties) coming from this part of the pitch.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that Messi, without a significant pre-season, saw his preparations for the new campaign interrupted heavily by the off-field controversy. That period of turmoil will surely have taken its toll mentally, perhaps making it inevitable that his focus should drift and his form suffer.

Whatever the reason, Koeman has got Messi back on track and his team-mates able contributing in recent months, seemingly ensuring the coach will be safe for another season.

But the job is not done yet. Messi wanted Koeman and Barca to prove that winning titles was possible. They've more or less done that and now need his brilliance to guide them through a do-or-die Clasico.

Ronald Koeman has no intention of resting Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong ahead of next week's El Clasico, despite both players being one booking away from a suspension.

Barca will be looking to extend their 18-match unbeaten run in LaLiga when they welcome Real Valladolid to Camp Nou on Monday.

Messi and De Jong are both available for the game as the Catalan giants look to keep the pressure on leaders Atletico Madrid, who are four points better off ahead of Sunday's trip to Sevilla.

However, both players risk being banned for next Saturday's showdown with bitter rivals Real Madrid, having each been booked four times already this season.

But while the pair may be walking a disciplinary tightrope, Koeman is ready to risk star man Messi and central midfielder De Jong against Valladolid.

"We know that these two players are one card away, but it is not the time to rest players due to cards or freshness," he said at Sunday's pre-match news conference.

"We have ten games left. There is always the risk, but the best thing is to put the team out that I think can win the game."

Messi has been directly involved in 23 league goals in 2021 - 16 goals and seven assists - which is more than any other player in the top five European leagues. 

The Argentinian has had a direct hand in eight goals in his last four LaLiga games against Real Valladolid - four goals and four assists.

Those goal involvements have helped Barca to 13 wins in their previous 14 LaLiga games against Valladolid, with the only exception being a 1-0 defeat away from home in March 2014.

Sergio Gonzalez's side have won just one of their past 11 league games, but Koeman will not take Monday's opponents lightly.

"You have to be prepared, you can't think that it will be an easy game," he said. "We have to go in with a lot of energy and rhythm and be good with the ball.

"We have to get back to our level. It could be a game without problems, but you always have to work hard to win."

Gerard Pique returned to training this week after recovering from a knee problem, while Sergi Roberto is also closing in on a comeback after two months on the sidelines.

Koeman will make a late decision on whether the defensive duo are ready to play a part against Valladolid.

"They are training with the team lately. They have improved a lot," he said.

"These are decisions that will be made tomorrow after the last training session. We aren't going to take risks [with injuries], nor next week, because there are more games coming this season."

Frank de Boer is demanding a high-scoring victory when the Netherlands face Gibraltar in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Having started their campaign with a 4-2 defeat to Turkey, the Oranje responded with a 2-0 win over Latvia on Saturday courtesy of goals from Steven Berghuis and Luuk de Jong.

Head coach De Boer was disappointed his side did not win by a greater margin, though, given they had 76.5 per cent of the possession and 36 shots, with Latvia goalkeeper Roberts Ozols making eight saves.

With Gibraltar having conceded seven goals in their opening two qualifying games against Norway and Montenegro, De Boer wants a more clinical performance from his players and insists loading his starting line-up with forwards is not necessarily the correct approach.

"More players up front doesn't necessarily make the job easier," he said on Monday. "The spaces might be even more tight that way.

"We want to try to bait the opponents to leave their defensive positions, so we can profit from the open spaces through quick combinations. I don't believe that more attackers equals more opportunities.

"Look, a 2-0 victory against Latvia isn't good, especially if you look at the way we played. We should have scored at least seven times, looking at the chances we had. The same goes against Gibraltar: if you create that many chances, you need to score that many times.

"It all depends on how sharp we are. Norway have beaten them 3-0; Gibraltar lost their most recent away match 4-1.

"We need to make sure the tempo stays high. We can't let them breathe. We need to score at least five times, but preferably more."

Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong believes a resounding win could help to boost morale within the Netherlands squad as they look to build on a run of three wins in their previous four matches.

"It's always fun to be playing for your country," he said. "In these games, you can have fun too: if all goes well, you score a lot, you can make some nice combinations.

"I think it could give us a good feeling."

Ronald Koeman hopes Lionel Messi can stay out of disciplinary trouble for the rest of the season as the Barcelona superstar teeters on the brink of suspension.

Barcelona have strung together a 17-game unbeaten run in LaLiga to transform their prospects, closing the gap on wobbling leaders Atletico Madrid to four points.

Messi, however, is just one yellow card away from a one-game ban, having been booked four times already, and an April 10 Clasico against Real Madrid is looming large.

It would suit Koeman if Messi could avoid any further bookings, but the coach will not let his team selections be ruled by the possibility of the Argentinian missing a future game.

Frenkie de Jong is in the same precarious position, and Koeman said: "We know they are one card away from the sanction, but it is what it is.

"I will not keep anyone in reserve. I hope they do not see a card. If they get it, another will play."

Messi has gone beyond 20 goals in LaLiga for a 13th consecutive season, the only player to do so in the competition's history, and he looks sure to start against Real Sociedad on Sunday.

It would be his 768th appearance for Barcelona, making him the outright all-time leader after drawing level with Xavi's total when he scored twice in a 4-1 win over Huesca on Monday,

With Barcelona already through to a Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, and on a charge in the league, talk has turned to the prospect of silverware.

Koeman's first season as head coach has been turbulent at times but could yet end in a domestic double.

The Dutchman is not interested in such discussions, though, saying on Saturday: "I don't like to talk about a double.

"This changes very quickly. Not long ago we were bad. We have to go game by game and we are four points behind and the calendar is very difficult.

"We have a final against a very difficult opponent. There is a long way to go to win things."

Koeman warned of the danger of any slip-up, saying that "each defeat can be expensive" as he complimented Real Sociedad and their "great coach" Imanol Alguacil.

One player Koeman has not been able to count on recently has been young forward Ansu Fati, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since November.

Barcelona hoped to have Fati back by around this stage of the season, but Koeman said of the 18-year-old Spain international: "He is taking longer than we expected.

"In a few weeks he will be training out on the field again, but he is young and strong. We are not in a hurry."

Ronald Koeman maintains another miraculous comeback against Paris Saint-Germain is not beyond Barcelona's capabilities, especially with Lionel Messi in the side.

Barca head to the Parc des Princes on Wednesday trailing 4-1 from the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick in PSG's commanding win at Camp Nou last month, leaving Barca requiring a remarkable result in France if they are to go through, with no team having ever progressed from a knockout tie in the competition's history after losing the first leg at home by three goals or more.

The Catalans are also on a miserable run away from home in Europe, having won only once in their past nine such knockout stage matches, failing to score in six of those games.

Barca pulled off an unforgettable comeback against PSG four years ago, recovering from losing the first leg 4-0 in Paris to progress after a sensational 6-1 win at home.

Koeman accepts a repeat of that famous 'remontada' is less likely given PSG are the home side for the second leg on this occasion, and the Barca boss does not believe Mauricio Pochettino's men will be afraid of history repeating itself.

However, even with centre-backs Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo missing through injury, Koeman will not give up on Messi and Barca producing another match to remember.

"We had a bad result in the reverse fixture. It all depends on how we start the game. We'll try to make life difficult," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"It depends on our effectiveness. They had a lot in the first game. We go out to win on any pitch. We always create a lot of chances. Nothing is impossible.

"The comeback in the Copa del Rey [against Sevilla] has given us confidence, but it's not the same to come back from 2-0 at home as coming back from 4-1 away, and PSG are a very strong team.

"To be able to have any chance, we have to have a complete night and have a huge amount of effectiveness. But we'll try. Hopefully, we can make things tough.

"We have to go out strong and play our game and create chances. If, after the game, we have the feeling we've given our utmost, we'll see what the result is. The worst thing that can happen is to think we haven't tried, or we haven't given everything.

"Of course, if we think we can come back, we need every player at their best level. If Leo is able to play one of his best games, everything is possible.

"He can decide any game in any moment. But it shouldn't only be him at his best level, but the whole team. We need luck, too.

"I don't think PSG are scared of us. I'm sure their coach will prepare them in the best way so they don't think it's an easy game, but there are circumstances that are totally different for a comeback [this time].

"It's always easier playing the second leg at home than away. We need to play our game. I'm sure they have confidence in their new coach."

Midfielder Frenkie de Jong thinks Barca's comeback against Sevilla, when they won 3-0 after extra time at Camp Nou to overturn a 2-0 Copa semi-final deficit, proves the players are united behind their coach.

With Neymar still unavailable due to an adductor injury, De Jong is keeping faith in his side's chances.

"The main objective is always to qualify," he said. "We're going to compete and see how things go.

"We're always united. Recently, we've been getting good results, and we're united as a team – you could see that against Sevilla.

"I don't know if 4-1 was fair, but we played that game badly. We're going to Paris to give a good image of ourselves, to compete.

"Neymar is among the best in the world. The fact he's not available is better for us. If Neymar isn't there, the opposition are less strong."

Barcelona fought back from the brink of defeat to beat Granada 5-3 after extra time in an extraordinary Copa del Rey quarter-final at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes.

Ronald Koeman's side won at this ground 4-0 in LaLiga last month but were facing a battle when Kenedy scored against the run of play after an error by Samuel Umtiti, making just his fifth start of the season.

Roberto Soldado struck a second on the break early in the second half and Barca struggled to get back into the contest against an exemplary Granada defence and inspired goalkeeper Aaron Escandell.

However, Griezmann turned in Lionel Messi's cross from deep with two minutes of normal time left and the same combination set up Jordi Alba to head in an injury-time equaliser.

Griezmann's fine header put Barca ahead in extra time but Fede Vico struck back straight away from the penalty spot, only for Frenkie de Jong and Alba again to settle the encounter at last.

Aaron was forced into six saves in the first half as Barca dominated proceedings, with a double stop to deny Messi and Francisco Trincao the pick of them.

It was Barca's own slack play that gifted Granada the lead, as some loose passing in defence ended in Umtiti being dispossessed by Alberto Soro, who teed up Kenedy for a tap-in.

Granada delivered a sucker-punch in the first two minutes of the second half. Angel Montoro intercepted a Griezmann pass and launched a long ball forward to Soldado, who raced away from Umtiti and slotted past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Trincao, Ousmane Dembele and Messi all hit the woodwork and Griezmann was denied from an overhead kick by a brilliant Aaron save, but the France forward turned a Messi cross in off post and keeper to give his side a lifeline.

The same Messi pass and Griezmann run teed up Alba to net an unlikely header, but Luis Suarez almost snatched a win for Granada with seconds left, the substitute dragging a shot wide after racing through on goal.

Aaron could do nothing to deny Griezmann's emphatic second in extra time as he rose highest to head in Alba's cross, but Vico restored parity three minutes later from the spot after Carlos Neva won a soft penalty from Sergino Dest.

But De Jong denied Granada a second semi-final in succession, side-footing into the net after Aaron had parried Messi's shot in the 109th minute, and Alba blasted home a stunning volley from Griezmann's clever pass to make certain the contest was over.

Barcelona booked their place in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals as goals from Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong sealed a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday. 

Ronald Koeman's side had looked set to follow Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in losing to lower-league opposition when Fran Garcia gave Segunda Division side Rayo the lead shortly after the hour-mark. 

As is so often the case, though, Messi pulled Barca level soon after with a close-range finish. 

That set the stage for the impressive De Jong to secure Barca's progression 10 minutes from time.

The first clear sight of goal did not come until the 20th minute, De Jong looping an effort from six yards onto Stole Dimitrievski's crossbar.

The visitors somehow failed to take the lead 10 minutes before the interval when Dimitrievski initially pawed away Trincao's strike before Riqui Puig's follow-up was diverted onto the crossbar by Ivan Martos.

Antoine Griezmann and De Jong had further chances, but Barca were ultimately unable to make their superiority count at the break.

Messi clipped the top of the crossbar with a free-kick three minutes after the restart before the Argentina international blazed over after being played clean through soon after.

Barca were made to rue those misses in the 63rd minute when Fran Garcia turned home from almost on the line after Neto had parried Alvaro Garcia's cross into his path.

Messi restored parity six minutes later, however, sliding in from six yards after being teed up by Griezmann.

De Jong ensured there would be no need for extra time to settle the result, stroking home from a similar position to Messi from Jordi Alba's cross.

Ronald Koeman praised Frenkie de Jong for improving the attacking aspect of his game after chipping in with another goal and an assist in Barcelona's 2-0 win over Elche.

The Netherlands international profited from a Diego Gonzalez error to give Barca a 39th-minute lead and crossed for substitute Riqui Puig to score a late second in Sunday's LaLiga clash.

De Jong now has three goals and two assists in his last six games in all competitions, while his five LaLiga goals in 18 months at Camp Nou is one more than he managed in five seasons in the Eredivisie.

He also contested more duels (11) than any other Barca player at Estadio Martinez Valero and no visiting player intercepted the ball more often (twice).

But it is the attacking side of De Jong's game that most pleased head coach Koeman, who wants his midfielders to take the goalscoring burden off the forward line.

"The three forwards aren't enough; we need the midfielders to score too," Koeman said. "It's good that he's scoring and assisting.

"He's always improving. We want the midfielders to get into the box and get up there."

Fellow midfielder Puig followed that advice by getting on the end of De Jong's cross and heading past Edgar Badia from his seventh touch after being introduced from the bench.

It was the academy graduate's first goal at senior level but he admitted to being disappointed by his lack of playing time this term, having made only one start in all competitions.

"I'm having quite a difficult season because I'm not used to playing so little," Puig told Movistar.

"But I'm getting stronger mentally. I'm happy with the team's hard work and how my team-mates are helping me."

Victory for Barcelona was their fourth in a row in the league, three of those without conceding, as they moved up to third place.

The Catalan giants have not conceded in any of their last nine LaLiga games against Elche, meanwhile, which is their best such run against a single opponent in the competition.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen produced a big save to deny Emiliano Rigoni with Barca 1-0 up and Koeman was grateful for his compatriot's shot-stopping ability.

"They didn't have many chances - they only had one and it came from a big mistake from our defence," Koeman said. "But Ter Stegen was very good in the one-on-one.

"Luckily we have a good goalkeeper, because they could've equalised at that point.

"Defensively, apart from that mistake, we did well. The best thing about today was our pressing and our performance without the ball. We deserved to win.

"I'm very happy with how we won. We've had lots of matches in the last few days and we've kept focus.

"We were better than our opponents. We were patient. We won possession. It was difficult to score because they had lots of men behind the ball. But we pressed well."

Barcelona return to action on Wednesday with a trip to Rayo Vallecano in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.

Frenkie de Jong is unsure of Barcelona's title credentials despite their improving LaLiga form.

De Jong scored the opener and created a late second for substitute Riqui Puig during Sunday's 2-0 win at Elche.

That made it four wins out of four for Barca in Spain's top flight since the turn of the year, although they will be 10 points behind Atletico Madrid having played a game more if the leaders are able to beat Valencia in Sunday's late kick-off.

"I'm not sure," he told LaLiga TV when asked whether Ronald Koeman's side are back in the title race.

"We have to win our games and we'll see where we end up towards the end of the season."

Nevertheless, the Netherlands midfielder has no doubt Barca are an improved side after a tough start to life under his former national team boss Koeman.

"Since the new year we're a lot better and we've played most of the games away from home and won all of them in LaLiga. We're in a better moment," De Jong said.

"I think [beating Elche] will do us good, we've worked hard, especially now in the new year. We're growing and improving as a team and hopefully we can keep improving."

De Jong's tally of five goals across his season-and-a-half with Barca has already bettered his total of Eredivisie strikes for Ajax (four) across five campaigns, and the 23-year-old also feels that the imperative to improve applies to him personally, even after a man-of-the-match display.

"Yes, I do think I can play better but it’s not only about goals and assists," he added. "Of course I'm happy but there's more to come."

Frenkie de Jong played a prominent role as Barcelona beat LaLiga strugglers Elche 2-0 to stay in touch with the leading pack.

Lionel Messi completed his two-match suspension for a red card during the Supercopa de Espana defeat to Athletic Bilbao and Barca struggled to create clear chances in his absence against well-organised opponents.

But an error from Diego Gonzalez allowed De Jong to take advantage in the 39th-minute – the Netherlands international unlikely to score an easier one than his fifth LaLiga goal.

A minute from time, De Jong then turned provider as he crossed for Riqui Puig to head home, ensuring Barca are three points behind Real Madrid, although they will be 10 points shy of Atletico Madrid again if the leaders are able to beat Valencia later on Sunday.

Frenkie de Jong and Jordi Alba were granted a rest as Ronald Koeman called Alex Collado up for Barcelona's Copa del Rey clash with Cornella on Thursday.

Koeman gave a break to De Jong (2,166) and Alba (1,927), who rank first and third respectively for minutes played in all competitions at Barca this season.

Lionel Messi (1,939) separates them but misses the trip to the Segunda B side as he serves the first game of a two-match ban following his sending off in the Supercopa de Espana final defeat to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. The suspension could yet be reduced to one game as Barca lodged an appeal.

Koeman has taken the chance to include 21-year-old Barcelona B midfielder Collado in a matchday squad for the first time since taking over in August.

Collado made his Barca debut in May 2019 but has only managed one further first-team appearance since then.

Fellow Barca B players Ilaix Moriba, Arnau Tenas and Konrad de la Fuente have also been named in the 20-man group.

Koeman still has plenty of experienced players available to him and will hope to avoid a shock exit like Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have suffered this season.

Cornella stunned Atletico in the second round and will be keen for another scalp, while Madrid were on the receiving end of a 2-1 loss to 10-man Alcoyano after extra time on Wednesday.

Barcelona reached the Supercopa de Espana final after beating Real Sociedad 3-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in Cordoba.

With Lionel Messi sitting out the tie with a slight injury, it was Frenkie de Jong who continued his strong recent form with the opening goal in the first half.

De Jong conceded the penalty that allowed Mikel Oyarzabal to equalise, though, and it was Sociedad who threatened most as the game entered extra time, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen in strong form and substitute Adnan Januzaj hitting the post with a free-kick.

Ter Stegen proved pivotal in the shoot-out, making two saves, before Riqui Puig buried his spot-kick to send Barca through.

The Germany international made a fine one-on-one save to deny Alexander Isak as La Real looked by far the more threatening in the early exchanges.

Barca seemed to settle after 25 minutes and twice came close through Martin Braithwaite, while Ousmane Dembele was menacing Nacho Monreal down the right.

The Catalans' growing pressure told six minutes before half-time, Antoine Griezmann clipping a cross towards De Jong, who reacted well to steer a header past Alex Remiro.

But De Jong handed Sociedad an equaliser 51 minutes in, his handball allowing Oyarzabal to send Ter Stegen the wrong way from the spot.

An end-to-end contest ensued, La Real threatening on the break through Isak and both Pedri and Griezmann coming close with powerful efforts.

In extra time, Ter Stegen made a spectacular one-handed save to keep out Joseba Zaldua's rocket before Dembele sent a shot straight at Remiro after Griezmann had stolen back possession.

Griezmann saw a volley smothered and Barca were very nearly hit on the break, Ter Stegen doing enough to deny Oyarzabal after the forward had failed to connect properly with Januzaj's cross.

Januzaj himself had a shot just prodded past the left-hand post after a strong run and then came closest of all to a winner, clattering the post with a wicked free-kick as Ter Stegen looked to get a fingertip to the ball.

De Jong hit the post with Barca's first penalty, but Ter Stegen saved from Jon Bautista and Oyarzabal and Willian Jose hit the post after Dembele had scored.

Griezmann skied his effort horribly after Miralem Pjanic and Mikel Merino each scored, but although Januzaj also converted, Puig showed nerves of steel to send the Catalans into the final.

Ronald Koeman said Barcelona were missing a number nine as they scored just once from 20 shots on goal in a 1-0 victory over Huesca, and called for the club to sign a new striker.

Lionel Messi returned to the Barcelona side after recovering from an ankle injury and Koeman opted to play him in attack alongside Martin Braithwaite and Ousmane Dembele.

The trio attempted 15 shots between them but it was Frenkie de Jong who scored the decisive goal, volleying Messi's chipped pass into the net after 27 minutes.

Koeman, who sent on Antoine Griezmann for Braithwaite nine minutes from time, admitted that he lacks a natural striker to lead the line in between the creative talents of Messi and Dembele.

"I trust each player in our squad," Koeman told reporters. "But if we choose to have three midfielders there is room for three forwards.

"With Leo we bet on someone with great depth like Dembele, and we have to choose between Martin or Antoine at the top and Martin has done it.

"It's a nine that we're missing in these games but it doesn't mean anything in regards to Antoine's substitution. We have a lot of games and we need all the players.

"We have said several times, at the beginning of the season, that we need someone at the top to have more competition and more goals, more effectiveness, but this depends on many things."

Koeman indicated that he believes improving his striking options will help reduce the pressure on Barcelona's defence, which absorbed waves of Huesca attacks as the hosts sought an equaliser late on at El Alcoraz.

Barcelona were on target with just seven of their 20 shots at goal and Koeman said they must close games out earlier to avoid nervous late spells.

"The second half was not so brilliant," admitted Koeman.

"In the end we suffer a little because they have tried to create and there have been crosses where we have defended well. If you don't close out the game earlier, you always suffer."

Looking ahead to LaLiga clashes with Athletic Bilbao and Granada, and a Supercopa de Espana semi-final against Real Sociedad, Koeman added: "This month is very important for our aspirations because we have many away games and if we win them I think we can fight.

"We have come out strong, very focused, and that is the main base we need. If we have those two things we will improve with the ball and if we can also improve in front of goal we can have a very important and good year."

Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen called upon his team-mates to raise the quality of their performances late in games after they earned a narrow victory over LaLiga strugglers Huesca.

Frenkie de Jong scored a first-half volley that proved decisive at El Alcoraz but Ter Stegen had to be alert to keep Rafa Mir from equalising as the division's bottom club were allowed to attack in the second half.

Ter Stegen acknowledged that Barcelona's display improved on their showing in a 1-1 draw with Eibar last time out in LaLiga, but called for more hard work to put the Blaugrana back in contention for a place in the top three.

"For 35 minutes we did very well, we played very good," Ter Stegen told the club's official website.

"We had a lot of possession, we pressed them high, when we lost the ball we were directly right in front of them to keep on going. We made it very difficult for them to come out from the back.

"We have to improve, that's what I think, overall in the last minutes so that we don't suffer as much. I think it's not needed.

"But we won the game which is very important and we move forwards."

Ter Stegen paid tribute to De Jong, who scored his second LaLiga goal of the season to equal the number he scored in the whole of 2019-20.

"I'm super happy for him, it's not that often that he scores. I hope he continues like this, and for me and the whole team it's nice to have a clean sheet for the restart and I'm really happy for us as a team," he said.

De Jong, who arrived at Camp Nou in a €75million transfer from Ajax in mid-2019, credited the fine chipped pass from Lionel Messi for giving him the opportunity to net his fourth goal for the club.

He said: "Especially in games like this when they close a lot and they are going backwards, all of their team almost, it's important to make these runs into the box as a midfielder.

"Leo gave me a great pass and I could score."

Asked whether scoring the club's first goal of 2021 holds significance for him, De Jong said: "I try to score a bit more but I don't think it means something, no."

Barcelona moved into LaLiga's top five after Frenkie de Jong's goal clinched a 1-0 victory over bottom club Huesca in Lionel Messi's 500th league appearance for the club.

Blaugrana boss Ronald Koeman, who warned before the game that defeat would all but end his side's title challenge, saw a much-improved Barcelona performance as he earned back-to-back LaLiga away wins for the first time in his tenure.

Messi came back into the side after missing Barca's disappointing 1-1 draw with Eibar due to an ankle injury and was at his talismanic best, deftly assisting De Jong's volleyed goal after just before the half-hour mark.

Huesca did open the visitors up on occasion and it remains to be seen whether Koeman can restore some consistency and style to this team, but they did enough here to climb above Sevilla in the table.

Barcelona's early pressure paid off after 27 minutes when Messi played an exquisite chipped pass into the box, where De Jong evaded two defenders and guided the ball into the corner of the net from six yards on the volley.

Messi would have capped a fine first-half performance with a superb goal five minutes from the interval had Alvaro Fernandez not pulled off a spectacular save, palming his dipping 20-yard free-kick over the crossbar.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner flashed a fierce effort narrowly wide from the edge of the box early in the second period, before Marc-Andre ter Stegen got down well to prevent Rafa Mir's close-range shot from becoming the equaliser.

Ousmane Dembele should have put the game beyond doubt when he went one-on-one with Fernandez 13 minutes from time, but the Huesca goalkeeper saved at his feet and then denied Messi again before full-time.

Page 1 of 4
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.