Marcos Llorente dismissed the suggestion of luck being on Atletico Madrid's side in their LaLiga title bid after their close-fought win over Elche.

Llorente scored the only goal of the game in the 23rd minute, moments after Luis Suarez had a goal disallowed by VAR for offside.

However, Llorente seemed set to go from hero to zero for LaLiga leaders Atleti when he conceded a late penalty for handball.

Yet Atleti came away unscathed, Elche captain Fidel hitting the post with his spot-kick. Atleti have now not conceded from the previous three penalties they have faced.

The victory lifted Atleti five points clear in a four-way title tussle, albeit that gap will be closed should Real Madrid beat Osasuna in Saturday's late game.

With Barcelona having lost their game in hand on Thursday, Atleti would be crowned champions should they win all of their four remaining matches – including a huge game against the Blaugrana at Camp Nou next week.

"It was an obligation to win, it was very important for everyone," Llorente told Movistar.

"The team knew how to carry out the game. All the rivals are at the top and Elche are a great team. We take all three points and it gives us great satisfaction."

Asked if luck was on Atleti's side, Llorente replied: "Starting from the fact that I don't believe in luck, in the end, if [the penalty] got to the goal, [Jan] Oblak had guessed the right way. 

"We got the points and it gives us a lot of strength for what remains.

"Winning is always positive, confidence increases, and today is one of those days."

It was a sentiment echoed by Simeone, who told a news conference: "It is time to work. The facts must be demonstrated on the pitch: that the team improves, plays with enthusiasm, is fierce and what I imagined and dreamed of when I arrived at Atletico."

Asked if Atleti must be considered favourites, Simeone said: "We are not in the moment to think; we are in the moment to do."

Simeone has now coached in 360 LaLiga games, surpassing Helenio Herrera as the Argentine to have managed the most matches in the competition.

Real Madrid would find the money to buy Erling Haaland at the end of the season if he can be prised away from Borussia Dortmund, according to the player's agent.

Mino Raiola, who represents the Norwegian striker, believes the opportunity to land a rare talent such as Haaland would be too good for Madrid, or Barcelona, to refuse.

Both Spanish giants signed up to the European Super League, a competition that could have helped ease their financial worries.

The apparent collapse of that league led Real Madrid president Florentino Perez to state his club – or any other for that matter – would be unable to afford any spectacular summer signings.

Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe has also been linked with a move to Madrid.

Raiola thinks Los Blancos would not back away if Haaland became available.

"I don't know if they can afford him, because I haven't studied their books. But I think they can. I think they all can," Raiola told Spanish newspaper AS. "The question is different: Can Madrid afford not to buy Haaland? And Barca?"

He added: "This change Madrid will carry out needs to last 10 years, and that's why Haaland is important, because he's really young, but you would be buying a youngster with elite experience.

"The same with Mbappe. But you only get one chance to buy them. Right now you have the chance to buy them for the next 10 years. The same happened with Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi. Then, once they are in a big team, they don't let them go."

Dortmund have said they do not want to sell their star striker, who turns 21 in July, during the European summer transfer window, and Raiola said of that stance: "Now let's see if that desire is still there through to the 1st of September."

He added: "Today, the official stance of Dortmund is this. But I've got another view, I think that if a good opportunity comes up and everyone would be happy, we'll put it on the table."

Raiola spoke of working towards being able to "create a menu" of options for Haaland, but stressed that was not yet a possibility, and said there would be a risk element whether the player stayed or left Dortmund.

Dortmund have been well off the pace in the Bundesliga this season, currently sitting in fifth place and 16 points adrift of leaders Bayern Munich.

Raiola made it clear that Haaland wants to be a serial trophy winner as well as a prolific scorer. The latter aspect was described by Raiola as the striker's "obsession".

"No doubt he'll pick somewhere where he feels those two things go together best for him," Raiola said.

"It's really hard to lie. When a club like Barcelona or Real Madrid comes in for you, with so much history and being such a big club, it's hard to say no."

Raiola also teased the possibility of Haaland and Mbappe one day featuring alongside one another, saying: "In the big clubs, you can have great players together: Neymar and Messi have been together, Ronaldinho was with great players, Haaland could be alongside Mbappe or not. Great players always play together."

For now, it appears a distant prospect, as Madrid and Barcelona, both hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, weigh up the pros and cons of just one major transfer market splash.

Elche captain Fidel missed a stoppage-time penalty as Atletico Madrid picked up a narrow 1-0 win to tighten their grip on top spot in LaLiga ahead of next week's huge showdown with Barcelona.

Diego Simeone's side lost 2-1 to Athletic Bilbao last weekend and were fortunate to avoid another slip-up against relegation-threatened Elche in Saturday's contest at Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero.

Marcos Llorente scored what proved to be the all important goal for Atleti with his 12th league strike of the campaign in the 23rd minute after Luis Suarez had one chalked off for a marginal offside.

However, Elche wasted a glorious chance to snatch a share of the spoils in the 91st minute as Fidel fired a penalty against the post, meaning Atletico move ​five points clear of Real Madrid and Barca, who both have a game in hand to play.

Ronald Koeman remains convinced Barcelona can still win LaLiga, even though they have left themselves with little margin for error during the run-in.

Barca missed the chance to take over at the top of the table on Thursday, letting slip a one-goal lead to surprisingly lose 2-1 at home to Granada.

The unexpected defeat means Koeman's side instead sit third with just five games to play in the top-flight campaign, starting with Sunday's tricky trip to Valencia.

Yet with Atleti still to visit Camp Nou, a defiant Koeman insists maximum points will be enough to pip both Diego Simeone's side and Real Madrid, who are second in the standings, to the title.

"It is true that we were very disappointed because it was a very great opportunity to get to the top, but there is no more time to be sad because we are fighting with the top three teams," Koeman told the media on Saturday.

"In all the games we have a lot of possession, we create opportunities. It is true that defensively we have to improve things.

"We expect a difficult game [against Valencia], where we are going to have a lot of possession, we have to create, be better defensively.

"It is a great opportunity that we have missed, but I am convinced that if we win the last five games we will be champions."

Sevilla are also firmly in the title race too, sitting just a point behind Barca, while Granada's midweek win provided a further example of why there are no certainties in a highly competitive league, according to Koeman.

"It is a strong championship, with very good teams. There are four teams fighting for LaLiga," he said.

"If you are not well, if you lack things, then you pay dearly. That is the beauty of this season. There is no team superior to the rest. That shows that it is a very strong championship."

Koeman was sent off after Granada's equaliser and is set to serve a two-game touchline ban, though Barcelona have appealed against the punishment.

The Dutchman will watch on from the stands for the game against Valencia, but a reduced suspension would allow him to be back in the technical area for the crucial clash with Atleti on May 8.

"We are going to appeal because I think it is a very exaggerated sanction for saying 'what a character', you wear two games, if you really insult, they give you 20 games," Koeman said. 

"Tomorrow I will not be able to be on the bench, but we have technical staff and we are going to overcome it."

Erling Haaland is hot property right now with a long list of suitors keen on the Norwegian forward.

Financially powerful clubs Real Madrid, Manchester City and Chelsea are among those jostling for the Borussia Dortmund man but Barcelona are in contention too.

Haaland and his agent Mino Raiola visited Barcelona along with Madrid in April as talks commenced.

 

TOP STORY - MESSI PAY CUT TO FUND HAALAND DEAL

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi is willing to take a pay cut in order to help Barcelona land Erling Haaland according to Eurosport.

Messi wants to renew with Barca under the assumption the club is ambitious and contending for top honours.

Contract talks have commenced between Messi and the Catalans, with reports that they will offer Messi a new 10-year contract.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca reports that Real Madrid are looking to extend Lucas Vazquez's contract with a new and improved offer.

- Raheem Sterling could be offloaded by Manchester City this off-season, in order to fund moves for Erling Haaland and Jack Grealish, claims Football Insider.

- Chelsea are in the race for Juventus' French midfielder Adrien Rabiot, along with Barcelona, reports Calciomercato.

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims that Napoli have made a €10 million offer to Club Brugge for 20-year-old Belgium international Charles De Ketelaere.

- Gazzetta dello Sport also reports that Juventus wants to lure Massimiliano Allegri back to the club to replace head coach Andrea Pirlo.

Barcelona have launched an appeal against the two-match touchline ban handed to Ronald Koeman following his dismissal during the shock 2-1 LaLiga loss to Granada.

Koeman was shown a red card for comments he supposedly made to the fourth official not long after Granada had drawn level at Camp Nou on Thursday.

The Dutchman then watched on from the stands as the home side conceded again in the 79th minute, substitute Jorge Molina heading home to provide a further twist in the title race.

"I don't understand why they have sent me off. They [said I] have disrespected the fourth official," Koeman said after Thursday's match, according to Marca.

"I don't understand the red. According to the delegate, it was a lack of respect for the fourth official. I haven't said anything. I haven't insulted him or anything. But hey, if the fourth official wants to be the star of the night ... thank you."

Barcelona had appeared set to take over at the top of the table but now sit two points behind LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid with five games remaining.

One of those matches sees Barca host Atleti on May 8, which will be covered by Koeman's suspension unless his appeal is successful. The other fixture will be Sunday's trip to Valencia.

In confirming the appeal, the club referenced that their head coach had not previously been sent off since taking charge.

Meanwhile, Barca have extended Oscar Mingueza's contract.

The defender, who made his first-team debut in a Champions League fixture against Dynamo Kiev in November, is now tied down until June 2023 with a release clause of €100million.

"It's a dream come true. I've been working for many years for this objective, to sign a contract with the first team," Mingueza said in an official club interview.

"I'm really happy, really proud to have this chance after all the support that I have received."

Mingueza has made 36 appearances in all competitions this season since his promotion from the B team.  

Zinedine Zidane is frustrated by Real Madrid's injury problems and admitted it is not easy rotating his side between matches.

Defender Dani Carvajal suffered another injury setback this week, just three games into his comeback, and is now expected to miss the rest of the season.

Carvajal joins Lucas Vazquez, Ferland Mendy and Federico Valverde on the sidelines, but skipper Sergio Ramos is back in training and could feature against Osasuna on Saturday.

Madrid face another tight turnaround in fixtures, with the LaLiga clash against Osasuna followed four days later by a Champions League semi-final second leg with Chelsea.

Zidane has suggested he will not rest any key players this weekend, though, as draw specialists Madrid seek just a second win in six matches in all competitions.

"As a coach, of course I am very frustrated with the relapses," Zidane said at a pre-match news conference on Friday.

"I want my players healthy. I never want them injured, not even the smallest issue. When one relapses two or three times, I am not happy. But we have to always look forward.

"I can't explain the number of setbacks. All teams have had problems. With the issues we've had, getting to this point and still being in contention means a lot.

"I'm very happy with the players' character and what we have got out of them. We all believe in what we do, each one of us, and that is fundamental.

"It's not easy to manage a squad like Madrid's. Everyone has an opinion but inside it's not easy. It's my job and I do my best. It's a rare year and we will continue to fight.

"Not everyone will be able to play tomorrow, but we cannot think about Wednesday before tomorrow. Whatever happens, in life, you have to think about doing it well tomorrow. 

"This is what we are going to do - go out with the best possible team to win the three points. If you think differently, you don't reach all of your targets."

Madrid's issues could be compounded for their trip to Chelsea next week as Marcelo has been called up to monitor a polling station during local elections a day before the match, which is poised at 1-1.

However, Zidane has indicated that the experienced defender will still be part of Los Blancos' travelling party next week.

"It is what it is," Zidane said. "He is going to fulfil his obligations, but nothing changes. He will still be with us on Wednesday."

Madrid have drawn two of their last three league games, but their hopes of retaining the LaLiga title were boosted on Thursday with Barcelona's shock home loss to Granada.

Zidane's side are level on points with Barca and are only two behind leaders Atletico Madrid, with fourth-placed Sevilla just a point further back.

Los Blancos have won their last 10 games against Osasuna in LaLiga, scoring an average of 3.3 goals per game, but Zidane is taking nothing for granted this weekend.

"The league is always complicated," he said. "That will be the case right until the end. We cannot focus only on the defeats of our rivals - we have to look at ourselves.

"We want to win the league and will try until the end, but we can only think about tomorrow.

"We are in the mix, fighting. We are focused on the day-to-day and are preparing for the match. We are near the end of the season and we are concentrating on this.

"There are three points to play for and we are going to do everything to win them."

Diego Simeone believes LaLiga's engrossing four-way title race is good for Spanish football and insists leaders Atletico Madrid are only focusing on themselves following Barcelona's slip-up.

Barca missed the chance to go top of LaLiga on Thursday as they slipped to a stunning 2-1 home defeat against Granada, with coach Ronald Koeman sent off prior to Jorge Molina's 79th-minute winner.

It means Atletico lead Real Madrid and Barca by two points, with Sevilla just a point further back with five games to play.

Atletico visit Elche on Saturday prior to Madrid's clash with Osasuna. Barca face Valencia at Mestalla on Sunday and Sevilla host Athletic Bilbao on Monday.

But Simeone is solely concentrated on what his side do, rather than the fortunes of others in a title race that is a welcome tonic to the Barca-Madrid duopoly that has long since dominated LaLiga.

"It is novel and does good to Spanish football," Simeone told a pre-match media conference of the four-team battle.

"The possibility that several teams can win is good. We are in a four-way fight in which match by match takes on a more important value.

"With four teams so tight I can only think about the next game. Trust the players who have been having a very good season."

Asked about Barca's defeat, Koeman replied: "I saw the end of the match. A competitive match. But I was only thinking about the only thing that matters to us, which is Elche. A team that has changed and competes very well since [head coach Fran] Escriba's arrival.

"The pressure is always there. If you play second and the rivals have won, you have pressure, but if you play before you also have it. You have to focus on what depends on you and nothing else."

If LaLiga's title race wasn't tantalising enough already, Barcelona's shock defeat to Granada on Thursday really threw a spanner in the works.

It looks set to be the most gripping end to any of the top five European leagues this term, and almost certainly the least predictable finish to LaLiga since 2006-07.

Back then there were three teams in with a chance of taking home the title on the final day of the season – Real Madrid and Barcelona, of course, plus Juande Ramos' Sevilla.

As it was, Madrid and Barca won on the last day whereas Sevilla – who needed a win and for the other two to lose – lost at home to Villarreal.

Madrid finished top by virtue of a better head-to-head record over Barca, who were essentially denied the title by their local rivals Espanyol, slumping to a 2-2 draw with them on the penultimate day to hand Los Blancos the initiative.

For the first time since then, Sevilla are again in with a shout of upsetting established order, though on this occasion Atletico Madrid are in the mix as well.

In fact, with just three points separating first from fourth with five games left, it's the closest title race LaLiga has ever seen in a 20-team campaign (1987-1995, 1997-present).

Diego Simeone's side looked certainties for the title not too long ago: at the start of February, they were 11 points clear, but they've won only six of their 14 league games since, including a defeat to Sevilla in early April.

Yet, remarkably, it's still in Atletico's hands thanks to Barca's surprise loss at home to Granada on Thursday.

 

What made that defeat even more incredible was the fact Granada had just 18 per cent of the ball and scored twice from an xG (expected goals) value of just 0.69. This means they netted more than two times as many as they should have, which speaks to how stunningly clinical they were.

Interestingly – or, infuriatingly, if you're a fan – it was Barcelona's second-highest share of the ball in a league game this season, behind only 82.1 per cent against Cadiz. They lost both games.

It's all shaping up for potentially decisive blows to be struck across May 8 and 9, when the top four all play each other – Barca host Atletico on the Saturday, with Sevilla going to Madrid the next day.

But what does our prediction model say about the most likely outcome in the title race?

How does the predictor work?

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly. All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table…

 

Atletico take the crown

There we have it… The AI predictor still sees Atletico as the likely champions, with a 38 per cent probability.

It essentially looks like it will come down to their showdown with Barca next Saturday. Atletico hold a slight advantage having beaten Barcelona 1-0 in Madrid earlier this season, and our predictor seemingly doesn't expect Ronald Koeman's men to overturn that at Camp Nou, as the model sees Atletico winning the title by virtue of their head-to-head record.

Nevertheless, Barcelona's outlook is almost identical to just a few weeks ago when the data suggested they had a 32.8 per cent chance, that now dropping ever so slightly to 32.6 – but you can't help but wonder what it would have been had they beaten Granada.

Madrid have drawn two of their previous three games 0-0, and so their chances have dropped from 34.4 per cent to a 26.6 per cent likelihood of winning the title.

Sevilla, perhaps unsurprisingly, remain the outsiders and our prediction model still only gives them a 2.8 per cent probability of winning their first league title since 1946.

However, that's 28 times more likely than just 18 days ago when the data gave them a 0.1 per cent chance of finishing top.

Everything seemingly hinges on next weekend…

Everton have been busy in the transfer market in recent times and they are preparing for another splash.

The Toffees, who are led by two-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti, brought in James Rodriguez, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan this season.

Everton remain in the hunt for European football with a top 10 finish looking assured but owner Farhad Moshiri's ambition still burns for more.

 

TOP STORY - EVERTON SET FOR COUTINHO SPLASH

Everton are set to land former Liverpool forward Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona in a £35million deal, according to The Sun.

The Toffees are allegedly already house hunting for the 28-year-old Brazilian, who would join countrymen Richarlison, Bernard and Allan at Goodison Park.

Coutinho has never quite settled at Barcelona since leaving Liverpool for Camp Nou in 2018, spending time on loan on Bayern Munich, while he has had injuries this term.

Barcelona are reportedly keen to offload Coutinho, who underwent knee surgery earlier this month, even for a cut-price fee.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato claims that Inter have rebuffed Manchester City's advances for Romelu Lukaku, insisting they are not willing to listen to any offers for the Belgian marksman.

- Aston Villa are monitoring Tammy Abraham's situation at Chelsea after it emerged that Blues are willing to sell him for a reported £40 million price tag, claims The Mirror.

- The Sun reports Brighton's Ben White has attracted interest from Borussia Dortmund who join the likes of Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal in pursuing him.

- Tottenham are hoping to speak to Ajax coach Erik ten Hag about taking up their vacant position following Jose Mourinho's sacking, according to The Guardian.

Ronald Koeman suggested the fourth official perhaps wanted to be "the star of the night" after the Barcelona boss was set off in Thursday's damaging 2-1 defeat to Granada.

Talisman Lionel Messi's 23rd-minute goal appeared to have Barca on track towards a fifth straight home win and three points that would have seen them leapfrog rivals Real Madrid and table-toppers Atletico Madrid in LaLiga.

However, Darwin Machis levelled and Koeman was sent to the stands prior to Jorge Molina heading home the winner 11 minutes from time to leave Barca two points off the pace with five games to play.

Koeman insisted he did not say anything insulting to the official and hinted he may challenge the decision.

"I don't understand why they have sent me off. They [said I] have disrespected the fourth official," he said in quotes reported by Marca.

"I don't understand the red. According to the delegate, it was a lack of respect for the fourth official. 

"I haven't said anything. I haven't insulted him or anything. But hey, if the fourth official wants to be the star of the night ... thank you.

"Let's see what the record says. If the record says something that I haven't said, I'll have to do something."

Koeman accepted his team made errors in a defeat few would have seen coming but the Dutchman is refusing to lose belief in a thrilling title tussle.

"We lost focus in the second half and made mistakes in defence," he added.

"We must accept today's defeat. It is reality. We had opportunities to win, but okay we have five games to go. Each one will have its difficulties. We have to prepare well for next Sunday.

"There are still possibilities. We have to accept defeat, analyse it and prepare for this tournament.

"I think we have tried to continue. We have not created many opportunities after their goals. They have closed down well and we could not create more.

"Seeing the two goals, we leave spaces where we have to close them. We have not been well defensively.

"It is a hard blow to stop depending on us. We are disappointed. We have five games to be champions. For us it is the same as for others."

Barcelona missed the chance to move top of LaLiga after suffering a shock 2-1 loss to Granada at Camp Nou on Thursday.

Lionel Messi’s 23rd-minute goal appeared to have Barca on course for a fifth straight home win, a result good enough to see them leapfrog both rivals Real Madrid and long-time leaders Atletico in the table.

However, Granada – who had failed to even manage a draw in any of their previous 25 league visits to their Catalan opponents – turned the game around to further change the outlook in the title race.

Darwin Machis equalised before Barca boss Ronald Koeman was shown a red card, meaning the Dutchman had to watch on from the stands as Jorge Molina was afforded time and space to head in a 79th-minute winner.

The dramatic turnaround had never appeared on the cards, yet Barcelona allowed their opponents to score with their only two attempts on target to cause a huge upset.

Messi had broken the deadlock after linking up with Antoine Griezmann, the Frenchman timing his delayed return pass perfectly to allow his team-mate to fizz a low, left-footed shot beyond goalkeeper Aaron Escandell and into the far corner of the net.

However, Messi was not quite so clinical with another one-on-one opportunity later in the first half and Griezmann himself failed to capitalise when presented with a clear sight of goal soon after the break, firing well wide with his right foot.

Sergi Roberto also sent a volley off target as Barca struggled to make their dominance tell – and Granada made them pay to clinch a result that will undoubtedly be celebrated in the Spanish capital.

Oscar Mingueza's failure to cut out a throughball allowed Machis to run clear and slot the ball beyond the advancing Marc-Andre ter Stegen, while Barca's goalkeeper had no chance when Molina ghosted into the penalty area to convert Adrian Marin's cross.

Dani Carvajal has suffered another injury setback just three games into his comeback, with the Real Madrid defender reportedly set to miss the rest of the season.

Carvajal was out for two months earlier this year due to a hamstring issue but had returned to action on April 21, coming on as a second-half substitute in a 3-0 win at Cadiz.

The Spain international played 68 minutes in the 0-0 draw with Real Betis last weekend, while he was on the field for 77 minutes in Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Chelsea.

However, Madrid have announced he sustained an injury to a muscle in his right hamstring, though did not issue a timeframe for his potential return.

"Following the tests carried out today on our player Dani Carvajal by the Real Madrid medical department, he has been diagnosed with an injury to the semimembranosus muscle in his right leg. His recovery will be monitored," a short statement from the club read.

Several Spanish media outlets have suggested Carvajal will miss Madrid's crucial LaLiga run-in as they aim to defend their title.

Zinedine Zidane's squad have five games remaining in the domestic campaign, as well as the return fixture against Chelsea to come at Stamford Bridge next week.

If they manage to progress at the expense of the Blues in the Champions League, the 2021 final takes place in Istanbul on May 29.

Carvajal has made 15 appearances in all competitions in the 2020-21 season; Lucas Vazquez had previously filled in for his compatriot in defence but a knee ligament injury ended his season early.

However, there was some positive news on the injury front for Zidane on Thursday as Sergio Ramos returned to training.

The centre-back has not featured for Madrid since the 3-1 Champions League win over Atalanta in the second leg of the last-16 tie on March 16.

Ramos did make three appearances for Spain after that fixture, returning to his club with a calf injury. He also tested positive for coronavirus this month, but Los Blancos' posted footage on social media of the 35-year-old working with his team-mates ahead of this weekend's game against Osasuna.

Xavi believes Barcelona have failed to take full advantage of having Lionel Messi in their ranks, as the Argentina forward's Camp Nou career hangs in the balance.

Messi could walk away from the club as a free agent in two months' time, when his contract expires, but reports in Spain indicate Barcelona are making determined attempts to persuade him to stay.

New president Joan Laporta, back for a second spell at the helm, is reported to have recently had dinner with Jorge Messi, father of the 33-year-old whose record-breaking feats at Barcelona continue to beggar belief.

For a 12th successive season, Messi has scored at least 25 league goals, making him the only player in Europe's top five leagues to achieve the feat in consecutive campaigns this century.

Messi has reached that target this season despite doubts lingering over his future at Barca, after he requested a transfer during the last close season.

He has scored over 400 goals more than any other player in the club's history and this season has overtaken Xavi to set the record for most appearances.

Xavi, coach of Al Sadd in Qatar, has despaired at seeing his former team-mate disenchanted at times, telling TV3: "That he has not felt happy in what I consider to be the club of my life makes me sad, and something has had to be done very badly for Leo to not feel happy.

"You have to make sure that Leo is happy, because with a happy and content Leo you have more numbers to win titles. Many times I've had the impression that Leo has not been happy on the pitch, that he has been sad, and it makes me sad as a cule [Barcelona supporter] that we have not taken advantage of him enough in recent years.

"We had the best footballer in the world and in history and we haven't taken advantage of him enough."

According to TNT Sports, Paris Saint-Germain are preparing a blockbuster contract offer in an effort to draw Messi to the French capital.

While what Xavi says certainly held true for a significant stretch during Josep Maria Bartomeu's presidency, the return of Laporta appears to have lifted the mood around the club.

Captain Messi has appeared increasingly to be enjoying his football this season under coach Ronald Koeman's leadership, and his form in recent weeks has been dazzling.

Barca have won the Copa del Rey already and on Thursday have the chance to go top of LaLiga as they face Granada.

If there was one man Villarreal could rely on, it was him. If there was one man they wanted standing over that penalty, it was him. If there was one man in their squad born for such a situation, it was him.

It is April 25, 2006, the kind of night the Valencian city of Vila-Real has seen few of. It's playing host to a Champions League semi-final just eight years on from seeing its team, Villarreal, earn their first promotion to LaLiga.

Having lost the first leg of the semi 1-0 to Arsenal in London, they have so far failed to find a way to level the tie, despite laying siege to the Gunners' goal.

But with time almost up, they have the perfect opportunity to seize the initiative as a marginal call goes their way: Gael Clichy is deemed, somewhat harshly, to have fouled Jose Mari in the box.

Up steps Juan Roman Riquelme, their undisputed talisman and one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A player possessed with the kind of technical wizardry on the ball that few others are – there's surely only one outcome?

But Riquelme's spot-kick is a poor one, placed to his right and at the perfect height for Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal.

The German easily makes the save, and Arsenal – not little Villarreal – are going to their first Champions League final.

They met again in the quarter-finals three years later but the tie was rather more one-sided, Arsenal winning 4-1 on aggregate.

Twelve years on and the Gunners aren't quite the power they once were, and Villarreal are looking to settle a score when they meet in their Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday.

So too is Unai Emery.

A hiding to nothing

Emery's time at Arsenal was probably doomed from the start. Succeeding Arsene Wenger, even with the lack of success towards the end of his tenure, was always going to be a tough ask.

In his second season at the helm, for a while it seemed only a matter of time before he went from Gunner to gonner. He was eventually dismissed on November 29, 2019, and the following month saw Mikel Arteta appointed as his successor.

Though, it's fair to say Arsenal have not seen much of an improvement under Arteta, whose 79 matches in charge is just one more than Emery managed.

Arteta's win percentage of 51 is shy of Emery's 55, while under the latter the Gunners scored 152 (compared to 127). The main difference in the current coach's favour is that they have conceded considerably fewer (80, down from 100), which perhaps is likely linked to the fact Arsenal are less of a threat in attack now.

Emery's Villarreal arguably come into this tie as favourites as well. They boast a better record almost across the board for this season, winning more often (53 per cent to 47), scoring more (87 to 82) and conceding fewer (47 to 54) than the Gunners, and their coach's record in this competition speaks for itself having won it three times with Sevilla, losing just six of 39 games.

If Villarreal can qualify for their first European final, Gerard Moreno will probably have had something to do with it one way or another.

The Spain international is enjoying the best season of his career and is something of a triple-threat.

The key to Emery's revenge plot

Moreno is a clever player. What makes his productivity in front of goal all the more impressive is the fact he's rarely deployed as an out-and-out central striker.

Instead, Moreno prefers to operate from the right, coming inside on to his left foot and occasionally floating around to also maximise his creative talents.

After all, not only is he Villarreal's top scorer with 20 goals this season in LaLiga, he's also laid on the most chances (38) in the Yellow Submarine's squad.

In fact, Lionel Messi (66) is one of only five forwards in LaLiga to play more key passes than the former Espanyol talent.

Moreno's unpredictability is aided by excellent dribbling skills as well, with Messi, Javi Galan and Nabil Fekir the three individuals to better his 62 completed dribbles this term.

Additionally, his success rate is 62.6 per cent – to put that into context, Messi's is 58.6.

Granted, his goalscoring record is slightly skewed by the fact he's scored nine penalties this term, but Messi (25) is the sole LaLiga player outscoring him and he looks set to claim the Zarra award (given to the top-scoring Spaniard) for a second successive season.

His haul of 20 is also an improvement of 2.5 on his expected goals (xG) value as well, evidence that he's putting away more chances than the average player would ordinarily expect.

Moreno has also carried that goalscoring form into the Europa League, where he stands joint second on the list of scorers with six.

The skillset possessed by Villarreal's talisman makes him the ideal player to carry out a number of different roles, but it also means Arsenal have to be alive to the numerous ways he can hurt them: in front of goal, creatively, or with the ball at his feet.

The 29-year-old could have a major role to play for Spain at Euro 2020 at the end of the season. Having a decisive impact for Villarreal in such a big tie may be vital in earning more of Luis Enrique's faith, with La Roja's coach initially taking a little while to warm to him.

But for the moment all the trust he needs is Emery's, and his form this term proves he has the tools to inspire Arsenal's downfall and grasp revenge for the Yellow Submarine and their pilot.

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