Marc-Andre ter Stegen's extraordinary error gifted Atletico Madrid the decisive goal as they defeated Barcelona 1-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Saturday's hard-fought LaLiga contest was settled by a remarkable Yannick Carrasco strike in the third minute of first-half stoppage time.

Ter Stegen – making just his third Blaugrana appearance in all competitions since returning from a knee injury – rashly set off in pursuit of the ball near the halfway line and was beaten by Carrasco, who kept his cool to find the net.

It was a setback Barca could not recover from as they succumbed to a third league defeat of the season to remain 10th, also losing Gerard Pique to a knee injury as Ronald Koeman's teething problems show no sign of easing.

The visitors had held their own in a lively start that saw Antoine Griezmann stab his volley just over before Ter Stegen dived away to his right to make a smart save from Saul Niguez's 20-yard drive.

Marcos Llorente came closest to an early breakthrough but blasted against the crossbar.

Jordi Alba interrupted a subsequent lull in proceedings with a sublime pass between Kieran Trippier's legs to send Lionel Messi through, yet he shot too close to Jan Oblak from a tight angle.

A nutmeg at the other end proved far more costly on the stroke of half-time, however, as Carrasco nudged the ball beyond Ter Stegen, who had inexplicably charged 40 yards from his goal to leave the Atletico winger with a straightforward finish into an empty net.

Clement Lenglet should have nodded Barca level 11 minutes after the restart but instead directed his header straight at a grateful Oblak and then saw centre-back partner Pique land awkwardly under a challenge, requiring assistance to depart down the tunnel.

And Diego Simeone's men subsequently came on strong again, pushing Barca back the other way to see out a precious victory.
 

What does it mean? Simeone's side the real contenders

For a little over 10 minutes, this was an open, exciting affair with chances at either end. But Atletico, masters of the scrappy win, slowed the pace of the game expertly and seized on a rare Ter Stegen error in clinical fashion.

Koeman needs some respite, but Simeone's side were never likely to relent, surely believing this strange year could be theirs. Atletico are second, level on points with leaders Real Sociedad, as Barca sit nine points off the pace already.

Trippier handles Alba task

Had Messi taken his first-half chance from an exquisite Alba pass, the nutmeg on Trippier would have been replayed over and over again. As it was, the Atletico right-back recovered superbly to win the battle down that flank.

The England international was involved at both ends of the field. He sent in four crosses, two of them finding team-mates, and created one chance, while winning four of his six duels and making one tackle, three clearances and two interceptions.

Barca's sweeper exposed

Ter Stegen is a rival to Manuel Neuer at international level but has long been established as Barca's number one. Neither Germany goalkeeper will reflect fondly on this week, though, as the Blaugrana ace followed up his watching brief in the 6-0 defeat to Spain by enduring a nightmare of his own.

The former Borussia Monchengladbach man, like Neuer, can take risks at times with his sweeping style, and this was one occasion where he paid the price. Carrasco became the eighth player to dribble past Ter Stegen in his LaLiga career as he committed an error leading to a goal for the ninth time.

What's next?

Champions League action resumes in midweek with Atletico at home to Lokomotiv Moscow on Wednesday, the day after Barca visit Dynamo Kiev.

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique suffered a potentially serious knee injury in Saturday's LaLiga contest with Atletico Madrid.

Atletico forward Angel Correa awkwardly fell on top of Pique's lower leg after being tackled, causing to bend the wrong way at the knee.

Pique was left in visible pain and seemingly unable to walk unaided.

The centre-back hobbled off the pitch thanks to the assistance of medical staff, but the look of anguish across his face was mirrored by one of concern on coach Ronald Koeman.

Barca were 1-0 down at the time of his withdrawal.

In a show of support, Pique's former defensive partner for Barcelona and Spain, Carles Puyol, tweeted: "Forca @3gerardpique I hope it's nothing."

Zinedine Zidane saw cause for optimism in Real Madrid's draw at Villarreal on Saturday and had little interest in entertaining his critics.

Madrid returned to LaLiga action following the international break without key men Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema.

Looking to respond to a 4-1 defeat at Valencia last time out, the champions looked to have done enough to win as Mariano Diaz - starting for the first time in 18 months - netted after two minutes.

But Gerard Moreno's penalty after a Thibaut Courtois foul kept Madrid in fourth, three points behind early leaders Real Sociedad.

The goals were the only shots on target at either end, although Villarreal had 13 total attempts to Madrid's six. Zidane still felt his team deserved the points.

"I think we deserved more, considering what we did," he said. "Especially in the first half. We've dropped two points.

"I'm upset for the players because of the effort they gave. I felt we could have taken the three points today and that's a shame."

Zidane had acknowledged prior to the match that there was pressure at Madrid, but he defended his hopeful outlook despite another tough result.

"I keep looking forward," he said. "You continue with what you are doing and I with my work."

Other questions focused on three of his players: Mariano, who starred in Benzema's place, Eden Hazard, returning after contracting coronavirus, and Isco, appearing only as a 65th-minute substitute.

Mariano played 85 minutes, more than he had across all league matches combined since the start of last season (54), and scored with his only shot while creating two chances for team-mates.

He won three of his eight duels but could not see out the match, Zidane explained.

"The thing about Mariano is that he hadn't played for a long time," the coach said. "He was exhausted."

Hazard's display was slightly less impressive, failing to attempt a shot or play a key pass in over an hour.

"He's there. He played," Zidane said. "We need to manage the minutes well, but he's with us and he's good."

Isco likewise had no say in proceedings in an attacking sense and has still made only three LaLiga starts this term as he is linked with a January departure.

"What is happening inside will stay inside," his coach said. "Right now, Isco is a Real Madrid player and is with us. There's nothing to talk about."

Real Madrid's LaLiga title defence suffered another early setback as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Villarreal despite leading for 74 minutes on Saturday.

The champions were without captain Sergio Ramos and star striker Karim Benzema due to injury but were in front after just 107 seconds through Mariano Diaz, back in the line-up for the first time in 18 months.

Mariano's previous start in May 2019 had seen him score twice in a victory over Villarreal, yet his goal - which angered Unai Emery and his players amid confusion over a potential offside - proved only enough for a point this time.

Thibaut Courtois felled Samuel Chukwueze and, after a number of close calls for a defence evidently missing Ramos, Gerard Moreno tucked away the resulting penalty to equalise, keeping Madrid fourth following their humbling at Valencia prior to the international break.

What does the future hold for Manchester United star Paul Pogba?

Out of form and out of favour, Pogba has found himself out of the starting line-up this season and the Frenchman is not happy.

Could Pogba be prepared to wait for his perfect move away?

 

TOP STORY – POGBA EYEING EXIT

Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba could leave Old Trafford on a free transfer, according to The Athletic.

Pogba left United for Juventus on a free transfer in 2012 before returning to Manchester for a then-world record €105million (£89.3m) in 2016.

But the France international is unhappy at the Theatre of Dreams, where he is contracted until 2022, amid links with former club Juve and LaLiga champions Real Madrid.

 

ROUND-UP

- Tuttosport says Juve have turned their attention from Pogba to his countryman and Rennes sensation Eduardo Camavinga. The 18-year-old has been tipped to join Madrid, while Paris Saint-Germain are also reportedly interested.

- Bayern Munich centre-back Niklas Sule is dreaming of a move to United, claims Bild. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United are believed to be pursuing a defensive partner for Harry Maguire, with Madrid's Raphael Varane and RB Leipzig star Dayot Upamecano reported targets.

Isco is ready to leave Madrid in January, reports Marca. The attacking midfielder has been linked with Everton, following previous links to Juve and Manchester City.

- Liverpool Echo claims Liverpool have been quoted £26.7million (€29.8m) to sign Ajax defender Perr Schuurs. The 20-year-old is also reportedly wanted by Milan.

Arsenal are working on a structured payment plan to sign Salzburg sensation Dominik Szoboszlai, says the Mirror.

Juve are targeting Sporting CP defender Nuno Mendes, A Bola reports. The 18-year-old has also been linked with Milan, Arsenal, Manchester United and Wolves.

Inter and Antonio Conte have reached an agreement over a new contract but Corriere dello Sport says there will be no contract extensions during the season. Barcelona target Lautaro Martinez is the most problematic case for the Nerazzurri.

Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane insisted star defender Raphael Varane is non-transferable amid links with Manchester United.

United have been long-term admirers of Varane and the Premier League giants are reportedly preparing an offer for the 27-year-old France international.

But Zidane dismissed speculation over Varane's future at the Santiago Bernabeu, where the Frenchman has won three LaLiga titles and four Champions League trophies among other honours since arriving in 2011.

"It's not just me [who wants to keep him]," Zidane told reporters ahead of Saturday's LaLiga clash against Villarreal. "He is part of this club, we were very lucky to be able to bring him to Madrid.

"He has a great career, he's achieved a lot since he's been here. Of course, he is untransferable for the club, for the coach that I am, for people in general.

"That's clear and unambiguous. Now we can't stop people from talking. They're not just talking about Varane, but about all the players, Real Madrid ones and others.

"But for Varane, my position is clear, and it's the same as the club's position."

Varane has made seven LaLiga appearances this term and 10 across all competitions for Spanish champions Madrid.

He has more clearances (27), headed clearances (13) and blocks (four) than superstar captain and team-mate Sergio Ramos in LaLiga this season, while Varane has an 80 per cent tackle success rate and 30 duels won in the top flight.

Madrid are fourth in the standings, four points adrift of leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand following the international break.

After winning at Alfredo Di Stefano in July, Madrid could win two consecutive LaLiga games against Villarreal for the first time since September 2014.

Karim Benzema will miss Real Madrid's LaLiga visit to Villarreal on Saturday after failing to recover from an injury sustained against Valencia a fortnight ago. 

The 32-year-old was substituted in the 76th minute of the 4-1 defeat at Mestalla after experiencing pain in his left adductor.

He did take part in light training on Friday but Zinedine Zidane, perhaps with one eye on the Champions League clash with Inter on Wednesday, has not named him in the squad for this weekend's game.

Benzema is Madrid's top scorer in the league this season, with four goals in his eight appearances. He has also chipped in with three assists, the most of any Los Blancos player alongside Rodrygo. 

There is also no place in the squad for Luka Jovic, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday after returning from international duty with Serbia, while Casemiro and Eder Militao – who have been self-isolating following positive coronavirus tests before the international break – are also out. 

Sergio Ramos will also be absent after sustaining a hamstring injury in Spain's 6-0 win over Germany. The Madrid captain is expected to be sidelined for at least 10 days. 

The is better news regarding Eden Hazard, though, who has been named in the 20-man squad after he tested positive for COVID-19 before the Valencia defeat. 

Speaking at his pre-match media conference, Zidane did not want to dwell on the depleted nature of his squad, instead insisting the starting XI he chooses do not take anything for granted against Villarreal.

"What we have to do is be a group," he said. "You're talking about the game tomorrow and on Wednesday it is important for the Champions League, but all games are important, all of them.

"Every time we play, we have to do well. We can't relax, not even for one minute. The opponent demands a lot of you and we know that. We hope tomorrow we'll come out well."

Madrid are fourth in LaLiga, four points behind leaders Real Sociedad, who have played a game more. 

Real Madrid forward Luka Jovic has tested positive for coronavirus after returning from international duty with Serbia.

The 22-year-old was tested on Friday following his return to Spain after he scored twice in his country's 5-0 Nations League win over Russia on Wednesday. 

Jovic is now set to miss Saturday's visit to Villarreal in LaLiga and Wednesday's Champions League clash with Inter at San Siro. 

The Madrid man featured in all three of Serbia's games during the international break and scored in the Euro 2020 qualifying play-off against Scotland, which his side lost on penalties. 

Jovic's struggles for Madrid have continued at the start of this season, failing to score in five appearances across all competitions. 

In LaLiga, he has mustered just six shots, hitting the target only once as he has passed up two big chances. He has created a mere two opportunities for his team-mates.

Jovic scored twice in his debut league campaign in Spain, having netted 17 for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in 2018-19.

Madrid suffered a thumping 4-1 defeat to Valencia before the international break and are fourth in LaLiga, four points behind leaders Real Sociedad, who have played a game more.

Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane would all benefit from a quick decision on the club captain's future, according to his coach.

Madrid skipper Ramos is out of contract at the Santiago Bernabeu at the end of the season and has been linked to a host of rival clubs, including each of the Premier League's 'big six' along with Paris Saint-Germain.

But the 34-year-old remains a key man in Madrid, starting all eight of the champions' LaLiga games this season and scoring twice, while trailing only centre-back partner Raphael Varane for clearances (21), headed clearances (12) and blocks (two) in the top flight.

Zidane now wants to see a swift resolution to the contract situation.

"The situation with the club and Sergio, I hope it's sorted out quickly for the good of everyone - for me as a manager as well," he said ahead of Saturday's game against Villarreal.

Zidane added: "He's our leader, an important player, an important person. He's shown that and he's still showing that. He needs to stay here until he decides he wants to change."

The Frenchman will not be able to call on Ramos this weekend or against Inter in the Champions League in midweek, however, following a hamstring injury on international duty with Spain.

It was put to Zidane that Ramos' absence against Inter would be particularly keenly felt given Madrid's woes without their captain in prior big European games.

Since their most recent Champions League triumph in 2018, the 13-time winners have lost six of the seven games Ramos has missed in the competition, conceding 17 times. They have been beaten in just one of the 12 games he has featured in.

Zidane said: "Listen, he's our captain, we want him to be with us always, every game. For what he is, for what he shows, we know the importance of Sergio.

"When he's not here, we have to use the players who are here, who are working hard, and that's what we're going to do."

Madrid are facing a potential crisis at centre-back, with Varane and Eder Militao each far from certain to start against Villarreal following injuries.

Zidane said he was "worried" by the number of games his players are being asked to play, although he would not be drawn on Toni Kroos' comments on the matter, and acknowledged he would have liked to be able to rest Ramos previously but "it's difficult with the fixture schedule".

Four points off the top, Zidane cannot afford a slip-up with pressure mounting in the capital.

"That's not going to change," he said. "We just prepare to have our game tomorrow and do well and that's it.

"This is Real Madrid. We know the situation, we know all about it; every time we play we can't fail. It's always been like that. That's what this club is all about, but that's okay."

Pep Guardiola reiterated he would "love" Lionel Messi to see out his career at Barcelona amid fresh speculation linking Manchester City with the superstar forward.

Messi was unsuccessful in his attempt to leave Barca on a free transfer at the end of last season but is out of contract next July.

The Argentina international thrived under Guardiola during their four seasons working together at Camp Nou and they have been tipped to reunite at the Etihad Stadium.

Guardiola agreed a new two-year deal with City on Thursday, intensifying speculation of a move for Messi going through next year, but he again spoke of his belief the six-time Ballon d'Or winner should remain at Barca.

"Messi is a player for Barcelona," he said at a pre-match news conference previewing Saturday's Premier League clash with Tottenham.

"If you ask me my opinion I have a huge gratitude for what Barcelona has done for me - in the academy, as a player and as a manager, they gave me absolutely everything.

“What I want is [for Messi] to finish his career there. I would love it, I would wish it. That is what I said I don't know how many times, maybe a thousand times. 

"Right now he's a Barcelona player and the transfer market will be in June or July. We have incredible games to play and achievements to try and achieve and this is only in our minds."

Guardiola's new deal will keep him at the Etihad Stadium until the end of the 2022-23 campaign and the Catalan coach is keen to add to his collection of trophies.

"All the managers are there to win titles," he said. "We did an incredible job to win eight of them. 

"I say an incredible thank you for the opportunity to continue here. People say thanks to me but I say thanks to the club. They are the reason I am here. 

"They gave me a lot, we continue to do the best for our people to do the best as possible."

The contract extension also ends speculation over a possible return to Barcelona for Guardiola, who was keen to praise City for the way they have handled off-the-field issues this year.

"There are many reasons why I signed," he said. "The club didn't ask the government for furlough, didn't fire one person. They showed me the club how good they are in many things. 

"The decision was not just mine. The squad are all comfortable together and we will now try to continue doing what we have done in these previous seasons."

Lionel Messi has every right to be "p****d off" at being questioned over his relationship with Antoine Griezmann, according to Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman.

Griezmann's former representative Eric Olhats last week suggested the Barca captain has played a significant role in the France star's struggles at Camp Nou.

Messi was asked about the remarks after landing at El Prat Airport on Wednesday, having represented Argentina in a couple of World Cup qualifiers over the international break.

"I'm a little tired of always being the problem for everything at the club," he said.

Messi's comments come at a time when he continues to be linked with a move away from Barca, but Koeman insisted it is not fair on his player to be constantly questioned.

"I can understand that Leo is p****d off. You have to respect Leo more," he said at a news conference ahead of Saturday's LaLiga clash with Atletico Madrid.

"After such a long trip and asking about Antoine is disrespectful. It may be your intention to create a controversy. 

"I have never seen any confrontation between the two on the field, training ground or in the locker room. 

"I am not in favour of giving importance to Olhats because he stopped being Griezmann's agent years ago. What he said is b******t."

Koeman added: "I have to defend Leo because after 15 hours of travel, they do a one-hour check, and then you find a lot of press asking you a lot of questions."

Messi failed in an effort to walk away from Barca in August as the validity of his release clause was questioned due to last season being prolonged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Koeman reiterated he is hopeful the six-time Ballon d'Or winner will stay on beyond this season but conceded the decision is out of his hands.

"He still has a year on his contract. In my opinion he has to stay here," he said. "But I am not the person who has to convince him. Nobody knows what may happen in the future.

"It is incredible what he has done for this club. He is the person who will make a decision about his future."

The comments made by Olhats placed Griezmann's role at Barcelona firmly back in the spotlight, the forward having failed to make the desired impact since arriving in July 2019.

Griezmann has two goals and one assist in nine appearances this term and missed a penalty in Barca's last outing before the international break.

However, ahead of this weekend's trip to Griezmann's former club Atletico, Koeman reiterated he has no concerns over the Frenchman's form.

"No, because I see him concentrating, working and trying to help win the games," he said.

Philippe Coutinho is back in Barca's squad for the showdown at the Wanda Metropolitano, coinciding with the loss of Ansu Fati to a knee injury for the next four months.

"Philippe is okay," Koeman added. "He has been training for almost a week now and we have to talk to the physios about the best time for him to enter the match - from the start or from the bench.

"He is not a winger who likes to go deep; he plays more as an offensive midfielder. He is a great player and it is always good to have him because he is versatile."

Diego Simeone refused to give his two cents on Antoine Griezmann's struggles at Barcelona after it was suggested Lionel Messi was to blame.

Griezmann's former adviser Eric Olhats said last week the France star was made to feel unwelcome by Messi upon joining Barca from Atletico Madrid for €120million in July.

The 29-year-old is averaging a LaLiga goal every 273 minutes for the Blaugrana, far below his record of one every 152 minutes across five seasons at Atletico.

When asked about Olhats' remarks upon returning from international duty with Argentina on Wednesday, Messi said: "I'm tired of being to blame for everything that's wrong with the club."

Despite presiding over Griezmann's far more successful time at Atleti, Simeone was unwilling to give his opinion on why the move is yet to bear fruit ahead of his team welcoming Ronald Koeman's side to the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday.

"I have a great personal affection for Antoine and it would not be appropriate for me to assess what is happening at Barcelona," said Simeone.

"Those questions are for the Barcelona coach, and he will explain what he sees fit."

Atleti lost Hector Herrera and Manu Sanchez to injury during the international break, while Luis Suarez and Lucas Torreira will miss out against Barca after testing positive for coronavirus.

"It wouldn't be my place to have an opinion on the coronavirus protocols," said Simeone.

"As for the positive tests that have affected us, we are part of society and some people can get it. We will have to use other players in the games and we hope Luis Suarez and Lucas recover as soon as possible.

"We are in a moment in the world in which this can happen, and it has affected us."

Barca have been in a state of turmoil since their Champions League quarter-final humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in August, but Simeone does not believe their tumultuous state gives Atleti a better chance of emerging from their game with all three points.

"Every game is an opportunity and obviously this is one. We will try to take the game where we can hurt them and play the game we want to," said Simeone.

"They are a rival with great standing, a squad that is being rejuvenated, but with young players with experience and an exceptional level.

"It will be hard, difficult and we will try to achieve what we want."

Atleti have failed to win in their past 20 LaLiga games against Barca, with their only worst such run against Real Madrid between 2000 and 2013.

However, they are the only undefeated team left in the division and are on a club-record 23-game unbeaten run, while Barca have only been victorious in one of their past five top-flight outings.

Will Lionel Messi be a Barcelona player for much longer?

Messi, who has called Camp Nou home for his entire senior career, is reportedly eyeing a sensational exit.

And Manchester City are continuing to pursue the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI, CITY RUMOURS GROW

Lionel Messi's links with Manchester City are tightening following Pep Guardiola's renewal, according to Diario AS.

Messi was tipped to join City after handing in a transfer request at the start of the season, but the Barca captain opted to remain at Camp Nou.

However, with manager Guardiola extending his City contract, rumours are intensifying.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Premier League's 'big six' are interested in signing Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos. 90min claims Liverpool, City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are eyeing the veteran defender, who is out of contract at the end of the campaign.

Milan could be set for a busy January. Tuttomercato reports Milan want Fiorentina defender Nikola Milenkovic on loan with an option to buy for €30million. Inter and Juventus have also been linked with the Serbia international. It comes as Rossoneri duo Andrea Conti and Leo Duarte face uncertain futures, while Salzburg sensation Dominik Szoboszlai continues to be linked to Milan.

- Kicker says Paris Saint-Germain are favourites to sign Bayern Munich's soon-to-be free agent David Alaba, who has also been linked to Madrid and City.

- Chelsea full-back Emerson Palmieri could join Juve in January, though Alaba and Atalanta star Robin Goosens are also options for the Serie A champions, according to Calciomercato.

Lionel Messi must be the Michael Jordan of Barcelona, according to presidential candidate Jordi Farre.

Barcelona have been without an official president since Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned at the end of October ahead of an expected vote of no confidence.

The presidential election is scheduled to take place on January 24, and Farre is among the candidates, though Victor Font is the heavy favourite to win.

After Messi handed in a transfer request at the start of the season before opting to stay at Camp Nou, Farre outlined his long-term plans for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner, highlighting NBA Hall of Famer and Chicago Bulls great Jordan.

"Doubting what Messi has given us is even in bad taste," Farre told Esport3.

"Messi has to be offered a life project. We have to turn Messi into Barca's Jordan.

"We are working to offer Messi a project in the institutional life of the club."

Messi – out of contract at season's end – continues to be linked with Premier League giants Manchester City.

"We have already spoken with Messi's environment," Farre said. "We have a proposal. The offer is not economic.

"Leo has already made a lot of money. It is a love story. I am sure I have a project that will convince Messi."

Messi returned to Barca to work under new head coach Ronald Koeman after failing to engineer a move away, but 2020-21 has been far from a vintage season for the superstar captain.

The 33-year-old has scored three goals in seven LaLiga games this term, while he has six across all competitions.

Messi's minutes per-goal-rate of 195 is only good enough for 28th among players to have featured in at least five LaLiga games this season.

Barca – eighth in LaLiga and nine points off the pace – travel to Atletico Madrid on Saturday following the international break.

Messi has scored 12 goals in 17 LaLiga appearances against Atletico under Diego Simeone, more than any other player, whilst he is also the player to have scored the most LaLiga goals against goalkeeper Jan Oblak (eight goals in 11 games).

Lionel Messi is the only number one in football as former Barcelona star Ivan Rakitic hailed the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

Rakitic won 13 trophies, including four LaLiga titles and the Champions League, alongside superstar captain Messi at Barca before returning to Spanish rivals Sevilla at the start of the season.

Messi – Barca's all-time leading scorer – is regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport and Rakitic lauded the 33-year-old attacker, who has been linked with a move away from Camp Nou.

"One hundred per cent football. It doesn't matter who you are, you just have to watch and enjoy this guy. He's on another level," Rakitic told FIFA.com.

"With all respect to the other greats, there's only one number one – it's Leo. To play 311 games next to him, it was a dream.

"I enjoyed it so, so much. I just want to say this: 'Thank you for everything, Leo, because you'll never know how much it meant to me to play next to you'."

Messi's future remains an important topic at Barca after he handed in a transfer request following a tumultuous 2019-20 season.

Argentina's all-time leading scorer and captain was tipped to join Premier League powerhouse Manchester City before opting to remain in Spain, though he has since been linked to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain and Inter.

Messi returned to Barca to work under new head coach Ronald Koeman after failing to engineer a move away, but 2020-21 has been far from a vintage season for him.

He has scored three goals in seven LaLiga games this term, while he has six across all competitions.

Messi's minutes per-goal-rate of 195 is only good enough for 28th among players to have featured in at least five LaLiga games this season.

Barca – eighth in LaLiga and nine points off the pace – travel to Atletico Madrid on Saturday following the international break.

Messi has scored 12 goals in 17 LaLiga appearances against Atletico under Diego Simeone, more than any other player, whilst he is also the player to have scored the most LaLiga goals against goalkeeper Jan Oblak (eight goals in 11 games).

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