Barcelona look like a team "without a soul" this season due to some laboured performances and questionable decisions behind the scenes, according to Marc Muniesa.

The Catalans were two points clear at the top of LaLiga with 10 games remaining before Spain's season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Athletic Bilbao but remain favourites to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals after drawing the first leg of the last-16 tie with Napoli 1-1 in Italy.

However, questions have been repeatedly raised about Barca's unconvincing standards this season, even after Ernesto Valverde was dismissed in January and replaced by Quique Setien.

Antoine Griezmann has struggled to reach top form since a €120million move from Atletico Madrid, while injuries to Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele have left Setien short of options in attack.

Muniesa, who progressed through Barca's youth academy before joining Stoke City in 2013, thinks the 2019-20 season has dome some damage to Barca's wider image.

"Everything that's happened has been a bit bizarre, with Valverde's sacking, people putting on pressure from outside about the play... it looks like a team without a soul," the defender told Sport.

"It's very difficult to do what Pep [Guardiola] did or Luis Enrique, who played a little more on the counter-attack. Now, with injuries to Dembele and Luis Suarez, there aren't as many solutions up front.

"Griezmann is not at the high level expected of him and Messi is a bit on his own. The best news is Ansu Fati, who's a footballer who has no fear.

"The football issue was a bit more complicated because the investment in wages is the most important thing at the club and it's normal that it would take a bit longer."

Barca have taken steps this week to manage the financial implications of the football season being placed on hold.

The first-team squad have taken a 70 per cent pay cut and provided further financial aid to ensure Barca's non-playing staff are able to take home their full wages over the coming weeks.

The decision took time to be announced but Muniesa thinks it was an admirable move on the part of the players.

"Everyone wanted to do it in their own way. The players, in the end, have set a great example for many people by helping club employees to keep their whole wages. I think it's very positive - a great step taken by the squad," he said.

Liverpool star Virgil van Dijk labelled Barcelona great Lionel Messi his toughest opponent.

Van Dijk and Messi went head-to-head last season, when Liverpool produced an incredible second-leg comeback to beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals.

The Netherlands international paid tribute to Messi, a record six-time Ballon d'Or winner who is regarded as one of the greatest players of all-time.

"There are some difficult strikers out there, but probably Leo Messi," Van Dijk wrote on Twitter when asked who his toughest opponent was.

However, Van Dijk also credited Sergio Aguero, having faced the Manchester City forward regularly in recent seasons.

Asked who the hardest player to mark was, the defender replied: "Aguero."

Van Dijk said he was "feeling fine" and would be ready to go when the Premier League season, which is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, resumes.

Liverpool held a 25-point lead atop the table when the season was stopped.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said Lionel Messi agreed with pay cuts at the LaLiga champions, after the captain criticised senior club figures behind the scenes.

Barca confirmed a massive wage cut to help the club during the coronavirus pandemic, with players agreeing to reduce their salaries by 70 per cent and making further financial contributions to ensure all employees are able to take home the full value of their wages.

The news came following reports of a disagreement between senior Barca players and club directors over the degree of wage reduction, with Messi denying the squad turned down the team's proposal to reduce salaries.

Bartomeu said Messi never opposed Barca's decision to carry out salary cuts, telling SPORT: "Messi told me from day one that this reduction had to be made.

"This proposal came from the captains. It is a gesture that demonstrates their commitment to the club."

Messi issued a statement on behalf of the players on Monday, which was soon shared by other members of the first-team squad, in which he insisted they had always been happy to reduce their pay in order to help the club and its staff during the nationwide lockdown, with LaLiga under indefinite suspension while Spain attempts to arrest the spread of COVID-19.

The message accused those in charge of Barca of placing the players under unfair levels of scrutiny while negotiations over wage cuts continued.

Bartomeu added: "Perhaps [the players] have been frustrated by things said by people inside and outside the club, who do not have all the information.

"But the negotiations were carried out only by Oscar Grau and me and we have not said anything."

Lionel Messi has taken aim at senior figures behind the scenes at Barcelona following confirmation of a massive wage cut to help the club during the coronavirus pandemic.

It was confirmed on Monday that players have agreed to reduce salaries by 70 per cent and make further financial contributions to ensure that all club employees are able to take home the full value of their wages during Spain's state of emergency.

The news came following reports of a disagreement between senior Barca players and club directors over the degree of wage reduction.

Club captain Messi issued a statement on behalf of the players, which was soon shared by other members of the first-team squad, in which he insisted they had always been happy to reduce their pay in order to help the club and its staff during the nationwide lockdown, with LaLiga under indefinite suspension while Spain attempts to arrest the spread of COVID-19.

The message accused those in charge of Barca of placing the players under unfair levels of scrutiny while negotiations over wage cuts continued.

The statement, shared via Instagram, said: "A lot has been written and spoken about the first team of Barcelona in terms of the salaries of the players during this period of a state of emergency.

"Before anything else, we want to clarify that our will has always been to apply a reduction in the salary that we receive, because we understand perfectly that we're going through an exceptional situation and we are the first who have ALWAYS helped the club when we have been asked to do so.

"This includes many times we have done so through our own initiative, at other moments when we have thought it necessary or important.

"It doesn't stop surprising us that from within the club there were those who will try to put us under the magnifying glass and try to add pressure to do something that we always knew we would do.

"In fact, the agreement was delayed for a few days simply because we were looking for a formula to help the club and also its staff in such difficult times.

"For our part, the moment has come to announce that, aside from the 70 per cent reduction of our salary during the state of emergency, we will also make contributions so that club employees can collect 100 per cent of their salary while this situation lasts.

"If we didn't speak until now, it was because the priority for us was to find real solutions to help the club, but also those who were most affected by this situation.

"We don't want to say goodbye without sending a loving greeting and a lot of strength to all the fans who are finding things difficult in these hard times, as well as all those who are patiently waiting in their homes for the end of this crisis.

"Very soon, we're going to get through this and we will all do it together."

Barcelona players have agreed to a significant pay cut during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the club have confirmed.

The Barca board, players across the club's respective professional sports teams and "most" of the basketball team have agreed to salary reductions for the duration of Spain's state of emergency.

The senior football team has accepted a pay cut worth more than the 70 per cent initially proposed by the club, according to a Barca statement.

"This additional contribution from the squad, plus the contribution that the club will make, will guarantee 100 per cent of the salaries of all non-sport staff," Barcelona announced.

The LaLiga champions added: "The club would like to thank the professional athletes for their involvement in a situation as exceptional as the one caused by this health emergency."

Barca said last week that certain measures would be brought in to "minimise the economic impact that the coronavirus crisis is causing", although the club did not specify the precise degree of any wage reductions.

It was reported that players and directors were in disagreement over the proposed 70 per cent salary cuts, with negotiations causing a delay to measures being introduced.

However, club captain Lionel Messi issued a statement via Instagram on Monday to deny claims the first team were unwilling to agree to significant pay cuts.

"A lot has been written and spoken about the first team of Barcelona in which the salaries of the players during this period of State of Emergency are mentioned," Messi wrote.

"Before anything else, we want to clarify that our will has always been to apply a reduction in the salary that we receive, because we understand perfectly that we're going through an exceptional situation and we are the first who have ALWAYS helped the club when we have been asked to do so."

Lionel Messi has "ousted" Diego Maradona as Argentina's greatest number 10, according to former Italy international Antonio Cassano.

Messi's consistency over such a long period has made him the finest player Argentina has produced according to Cassano, who has called for Maradona's fans to accept that the Barcelona talisman deserves to be recognised as the best.

Cassano helped Real Madrid to the 2006-07 LaLiga title at the expense of Barca and Messi, but that success in Spain has not altered his opinion on the forward.

"Maradona did something never seen before for four or five years, but Messi has done the same things for 15 years," he said in an interview with Corriere dello Sport.

"He has made 710 goals and 300 assists. When he plays you start with a 1-0 lead.

"The ‘Maradonians’ have to accept it: there is someone who has ousted him."

Cassano revealed that, prior to Messi moving to the top of the list, he believed Brazil striker Ronaldo – a former Madrid team-mate - was the game's greatest.

"We were losing 1-0 at home," Cassano recalled. "The whole stadium was whistling, especially him [Ronaldo].

"In the locker room the coach removes Ronnie to put [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy on, but he [Ronaldo] stops him and says 'no, you take me off in 15 minutes if I haven't scored two goals'.

"Minute 15: 2-1 and two goals from Ronaldo. I said that if there is a football god, it is Ronaldo. Then I discovered that Messi is above him."

Lionel Messi is the "leader and protector" of Argentina, according to international team-mate Nicolas Tagliafico.

Messi, 32, has faced criticism for his performances for the national team as his wait for a first senior trophy at international level goes on.

But Ajax defender Tagliafico, a 25-time Argentina international, said the Barcelona star was key for his nation.

"Messi was released from the pressure to get results [at the 2019 Copa America, where Argentina finished third]," he told Ole.

"He more than anyone gets angry when he loses, but Messi became more aware that he has to enjoy the national team.

"I don't know until when he will play, but it is not that he will have too many cups with the national team. He is at a stage where he wants to enjoy everything, training, games.

"He is the leader and protector of the team. That facet came out that we might not always see."

The Copa America was due to be played again this year, but has been pushed back to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tagliafico said it was crucial for Argentina, who are unbeaten in seven games, to develop a strong foundation.

"We must find a very solid structure, not only for Leo, but also for the future, for what is to come," he said.

"To be able to find a structure to grow. It is good to build a solid foundation and don't build a base and then take it apart.

"If we can help Leo and Leo can help us, we will do much better. Everything is going to multiply. You have to create a structure and from there start to grow."

Spain boss Luis Enrique revealed Andres Iniesta was the closest talent to Lionel Messi he has coached.

A record six-time Ballon d'Or winner, Messi is widely regarded as one of the best players of all-time.

Luis Enrique coached Messi and Iniesta at Barcelona, where he was at the helm from 2014-17.

In a Q&A on the Spain national team's Facebook page, Luis Enrique talked up both Iniesta, now playing for Vissel Kobe, and Messi.

"The player that impressed me most in my career, I don't know if you mean being myself as a player or as a coach or both, without doubt is Leo Messi," he said.

"Afterwards, I can say that Andres Iniesta is close to something similar to Leo Messi.

"But Messi is hugely different in respect to the others."

Lionel Messi not winning the World Cup with Argentina would be unfair, according to goalkeeper Oscar Ustari.

Messi has won everything on offer during his time as a Barcelona player – the Champions League, LaLiga, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup, Copa del Rey and Supercopa de Espana.

However, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is yet to taste senior success in an Argentina jersey following a runners-up finish at the 2014 World Cup, having also reached back-to-back Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016.

A two-time Argentina international, Pachuca goalkeeper Ustari warned against doubting captain Messi – the country's all-time leading goalscorer.

"I have no doubt that if Messi isn't world champion, football will be unfair," Ustari told Radio Mitre.

"Doubting Messi is nonsense. Things can go well or not, but I can tell you that I have seen him crying like a child because of what was happening in the national team. It's very difficult to be in his shoes.

"I remember that in the 2011 Copa America [Argentina were eliminated by Uruguay in the quarter-finals] I was recovering from my knee and, when they lost, I went to see Messi at the Ezeiza venue and I saw him like I had never seen him before, devastated."

Lionel Messi has been thanked by a Barcelona hospital after making a donation to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused havoc across the globe and subsequently brought the sporting world to a standstill, with more than 418,000 confirmed cases.

With sports largely unable to continue, many clubs and leagues are making decisions to safeguard their financial solvency, with lay-offs and salary deductions becoming more common.

But some high-profile individuals are sacrificing their own money to help the cause, with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola confirmed to have donated €1million to the Angel Soler Daniel Foundation.

Messi – a six-time Ballon d'Or winner – has made a contribution of his own to the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona.

A Tweet from the clinic on Tuesday read: "Leo Messi made a donation to fight against COVID-19 in the clinic.

"Thank you very much, Leo, for your support and your commitment."

Spain is the second worst-affected European nation with almost 40,000 people diagnosed with the virus, including over 2,800 deaths.

Top of the table, sack your head coach, lose El Clasico, return to the top of the table.

It is hard to argue with where Barcelona stand as LaLIga's season pauses amid the coronavirus pandemic, although their means of staying on course for a ninth title in 12 seasons have often been unconvincing.

Here, we take a look back at the Opta numbers behind a campaign where Quique Setien has replaced Ernesto Valverde in the Camp Nou hot seat and many of the old certainties seem not to exist anymore.

Well, apart from one man's enduring brilliance.

WORST BARCA TEAM SINCE BEFORE GUARDIOLA

Barcelona's points haul of 58 from 27 games is enough for a two-point lead over Real Madrid in second but it is their worst return at this stage since 2007-08, when they had 54 points in the last knockings of Frank Rijkaard's tenure

The Blaugrana's 63 goals in 27 outings is also their lowest since that season, when they had 52 at this juncture and finished a distant third on 67 points.

Pep Guardiola took the reins for 2008-09, completed a clean sweep of trophies and Barca have never been outside the top two since.

That run is unlikely to change this time around but concerns over the longer-term direction of travel are understandable – even if making Valverde the first LaLiga boss to lose his job despite being top at the midway point since Radomir Antic made way for Leo Beenhakker at Real Madrid in 1991-92 left a sour taste.

Perhaps prophetically, Johan Cruyff's Barcelona won the title that year.

MAJESTIC MESSI

Unperturbed by these struggles and even speculation over his own future, Lionel Messi has continued on his merry way.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner is the top scorer in LaLiga this season with 19 goals and his 12 assists also lead the divisional statistics.

Borussia Dortmund and England star Jadon Sancho is the only other player in Europe's big five leagues with double figures for both, with 14 goals and 15 assists.

For now, Messi also has another marker over the man to whom he will always be compared. His 438 domestic league goals put him one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo on 437, although Messi's have arrived in 474 appearances as opposed to 540.

The Argentina international now has 420 LaLiga starts to his name and has surpassed the previous highest by a non-Spanish player, former Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna defender Donato (415).

THE BARCELONA WAY

Setien's commitment to a short passing, high pressing style earned him the nod of the Barcelona board after Valverde's unseemly departure.

Although the high-octane thrills of his best Real Betis sides have largely been absent, he did put down an important marker in his first game.

During the 1-0 win over Granada, Barca completed 1,002 passes – only the third time they or any other team have done so in a LaLiga contest.

The 1,046 recorded by Guardiola's men against Levante in May 2011 remains the highest, with his successor Tito Villanova overseeing 1,035 versus the same opponents in 1,035.

However, hoarding possession does not provide the security it once did.

Barcelona have conceded 31 goals in LaLiga so far this term, amounting to a higher goals per game against than in any of the previous nine season (1.15).

In fact, in five of those, Gerard Pique and his defensive colleagues had let in fewer than 31 at the end of the campaign.

Easier to score against, not as prolific and yet still on course for the title usefully sums up the peculiarity of Barcelona in 2019-20 at this point.

Lionel Messi's contract is said to be a priority for Barcelona, who have also received good news on the Neymar front.

Messi has a deal until 2021 with the LaLiga giants, but can leave for free at the end of the season.

If Barca can get that done, it looks like Neymar also wants a return to Camp Nou.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI CONTRACT A BARCELONA PRIORITY AS NEYMAR SAYS YES

A renewal for Messi is a prime concern for Barcelona, according to AS.

Messi is top of the to-do list for Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu despite economic problems facing several clubs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, the cover of Sport says Neymar wants to return to Barca and is ready to put pressure on Paris Saint-Germain to get his wish.

ROUND-UP

- According to Le 10 Sport, PSG have not offered Neymar a new deal despite talk they would. The Brazil international is contracted until 2022 at the Ligue 1 champions.

- Chelsea desperately want Jadon Sancho. The Evening Standard reports the Premier League club are ready to pay £120million (€129.9m) for the Borussia Dortmund star.

- Inter have apparently sent a warning to Barcelona over Lautaro Martinez. Sport reports the Serie A giants want cash only for the forward, ruling out a deal that also involves a player.

- Paris Saint-Germain are setting their sights on Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Le 10 sport says Donnarumma, who is out of contract next year, is a key target for PSG.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption with the global sporting schedule, but you can still get your fix if you know where to look.

Whether you are in self-isolation or practicing social distancing, in a way it has become easier than ever to watch sport as you pass the time.

Some of the biggest leagues and governing bodies have reacted to the global crisis by providing free access to a back catalogue of content.

We run down the best places to look if you're missing sport.

 

FIFA OPENS UP ARCHIVES

From Saturday, FIFA are making full match replays of over 30 games from World Cup and Women's World Cup history available.

The matches appear set to be available until football is back up and running in most countries.

 

A SWISH OFFER FROM THE NBA

Basketball fans rejoice. The wait for the playoffs may go on longer than anticipated, but the NBA is offering free access to the premium League Pass subscription service until April 22.

You can view full replays and highlights from all games played in the 2019-20 season, as well as classic matches.

 

NO LONGER BEHIND GRIDIRON BARS

If the NFL is more your thing, then why not use their Game Pass until the end of May?

You can watch full-length games or condensed versions, while the 'Hard Knocks' and 'A Football Life' series are available on demand, too.

 

MORE FROM THE STATES

Maybe ice hockey is what you are missing most. If so, the NHL.tv is free to all until April 30.

There is also the MLB Vault YouTube channel, which will provide you with hours of classic baseball games.

 

MISSING MESSI?

If you are in Europe, there is the option to watch Rakuten TV's 'Matchday - Inside FC Barcelona' and 'MessiCirque' documentaries without charge. (They also have over 150 films available on a free channel.)

Until the Premier League returns, Manchester City has opened the doors to the CITY+ subscription service. All you need to do is sign up for long-form, in-house content, historic games and full match replays.

 

FOR THE GAMERS OUT THERE...

If re-runs don't sate your appetite to help fill the hours, you can try out the full version of the Football Manager 2020 computer game via the Steam app until 15:00 GMT on March 25.

Former Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino hopes to return to Newell's Old Boys, preferably with Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.

Pochettino began his playing career at Newell's, where he emerged from the Argentine club's youth system in 1989 before moving to LaLiga outfit Espanyol in 1994.

The future of Pochettino continues to be speculated after he was sacked by Tottenham in November – linked to the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Pochettino, though, revealed his desire to make a Newell's comeback, alongside countryman and six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi – who also spent his youth playing for Newell's.

"I hope to return to the club one day," the 48-year-old Pochettino told Radio del Plata.

"I can still wait, preferably it will be in 10 years. With [Lionel] Messi."

Another Argentinian, Lautaro Martinez, is also making headlines following his exploits for Serie A outfit Inter.

Martinez is reportedly attracting interest from LaLiga champions Barca, who are eyeing a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez.

"Lautaro Martinez is one of the best strikers in the world," Pochettino added.

"It's not just for what he does now, but for what his potential means going forward. If you start looking at hitmen for the big clubs, clearly his name has to be in there."

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

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

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

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

BARCA IN 2019-20

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

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

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

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

MESSI SHOULDERS THE BURDEN

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

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

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

THE REST

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

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

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