Lionel Messi equalled Barcelona's all-time LaLiga appearances record set by Xavi by starting Saturday's clash with Deportivo Alaves.

It was thought Ronald Koeman might opt to leave Messi out given the importance of Tuesday's Champions League round-of-16 first-leg game against Paris Saint-Germain.

However, given the depleted nature of the Barca squad at the moment, Koeman made the decision to include his captain from the start.

It was Messi's 505th LaLiga appearance for Barca, tying the haul managed by club great Xavi, and the Argentinian could surpass his former team-mate next week at home to Cadiz.

Barcelona signing Sergio Aguero could help convince Lionel Messi to stay, according to Juli Lopez, who is involved with Victor Font's candidacy to be the club's next president.  

Messi's future beyond this season remains uncertain as he comes towards the end of his contract. The 33-year-old made clear his desire to leave prior to the 2020-21 campaign but ended up remaining at Camp Nou to see out his deal.  

Paris Saint-Germain have been strongly linked with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner, while Manchester City were reportedly interested in reuniting the Argentinian with his former Barca boss Pep Guardiola in England.  

However, Lopez – who will oversee the sporting department if Font wins the election – feels a familiar face arriving from City could help make all the difference for Messi.  

Asked in an interview with Marca if bringing in Aguero would help Messi decide to remain in Spain, he replied: "Absolutely.  

"Barcelona need another goalscorer. Aguero wouldn't be signed just so Messi stays. We're talking about a top striker who wants to be playing top-level European football up to the World Cup in Qatar.  

"He would bring a huge lift to the club and would play a huge role at Barcelona."

Like Messi, Aguero's deal with his current team is into the final few months.  

The striker is City's all-time leading scorer but has barely featured this season due to injuries and illness, making just nine appearances in all competitions. After hamstring and knee issues earlier in the campaign, he tested positive for coronavirus in January.  

Lopez also discussed the potential return of a Barcelona legend in Xavi – who is the head coach at Al Sadd in Qatar – as another move that may convince Messi, as the talismanic forward would be able to see there is a clear plan mapped out for the future.

"The first thing is to make sure he can see that this team in the medium and long term will play in the way that he likes," Lopez said.  

"Someone who he trusts will need to tell him this. Who better to explain the project than his former team-mate Xavi?  

"A good project and someone he can trust are the two key ingredients to keep him at the club."

Ronald Koeman insists the match in LaLiga between Barcelona and Deportivo Alaves is more important to him than discussing Paris Saint-Germain or Neymar.

A huge Champions League last-16 tie between Barca and PSG begins at Camp Nou on Tuesday and Neymar has been ruled out against his former club through injury.

But Barca boss Koeman stressed the home Alaves match on Saturday was most important to him because it is what comes next.

He also suggested he was considering squad rotation but would not make significant changes prior to the PSG game because he lacks options.

Barca lost 2-0 to Sevilla last time out on Wednesday in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final tie. It was their first defeat inside 90 minutes in 17 matches across all competitions.

But they have won seven and drawn one of their last eight LaLiga games with Alaves.

"I don't think Neymar is an Alaves player," Koeman said when asked about the injury to the PSG forward.

"This is a question for Monday, not for today. I'm not talking about Neymar, I'm not talking about PSG.

"Saturday's game is more important than Tuesday's. We are going game by game and we want to continue our good streak.

"The result of the Sevilla game is there but we played a very good game. If we repeat the game, we do not lose.

"We dominated in many areas against Sevilla, but you also have to have a bit of luck. We need freshness, but the team is feeling very well.

"You don't play a second half like we did in Seville if the team is not physically well."

Defenders Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo are unlikely to be risked against Alaves.

Koeman added: "Sergino Dest, Miralem Pjanic and Martin Braithwaite have done something [in training on Friday].

"[On Saturday] there is training and we will decide if they are on the squad list.

"For Araujo or Pique, I always believe in the margin of a risk. The objective is to recover players until the end of the season.

"If it is the last game of the season, you can risk more, but I am not in favour of risking a lot for a game.

"Those players have to recover well and step by step. If they are there and they can play, even better."

On the prospect of rotation, he continued: "Of course there are players who have been playing for many minutes with us not having everyone available.

"You have to think about giving rest to those players to be well in the next game. [But] not many [will be rotated], because there is not much we can change either.

"We look at the players, we train and we will decide. By winning the game, you are always mentally less tired than when you don't win.

"The goal is to win. But first you have to play and it will be difficult."

The Alaves match will start a run of four consecutive home games and Koeman added: "It's good to have back-to-back games at home because you save yourself traveling.

"We can rest more now and hopefully we will get players back to start having a very competitive squad again.

"It is good to see the youth team players and the youngsters play, but we need our more competitive players back."

Lionel Messi has scored 10 goals against Alaves in LaLiga in as many appearances against them, including four in his last three.

If he plays against Alaves, he will equal the record held by Xavi for most Barca league appearances by playing in his 504th top-flight match.

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman does not believe Sevilla's 2-0 Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg win over the Blaugrana was a fair reflection of the match, while he also questioned the officials.

Jules Kounde opened the scoring in the first half with a fine individual effort, before former Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic wrapped up a potentially significant win in the latter stages.

Lionel Messi did go close several times for the visitors, with Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou keeping him at bay as he made four saves in total – the Moroccan has saved all 18 shots on target he has had to face in this season's Copa.

The two teams renew hostilities at Camp Nou on March 3 for the second half, though Barca have only progressed past Sevilla once in the Copa when losing the first leg to the Andalusians.

Barca shaded the possession (53.6 per cent) and their 13 shots were two more than the hosts, with Koeman left convinced his side had been hard done by.

"It is a result with too much reward for them," Koeman said. "We have seen a Barca playing well, creating a very clear chances.

"We have put a lot of pressure in the second half. I cannot blame the team. There is another game left, we have to try to win and play the final.

"It is difficult at 2-0. We had opportunities to score, but their defence was good, as was their goalkeeper too, but at home this Barca is capable of anything."

Barca were left frustrated by a moment in the second half where Suso was adjudged to have fouled Jordi Alba just outside the box, yet Koeman and his players were convinced the offence occurred inside the box.

The VAR did not appear to intervene, and this left Koeman bemused.

"Mateu Lahoz [the referee] I think was good in general," Koeman said.

"Of course, there was always doubt with the incident of the penalty, because everyone says it was a penalty, so I have to believe them – not only the Barca people [said it should have been a penalty].

"I don't know why the VAR has not intervened."

Sevilla go into the second leg with a significant advantage and know that an away goal will give Barca a mountain to climb, but they are not getting ahead of themselves, aware the most difficult task is yet to come.

"We knew it was going to be very difficult, the team played a great game, we fought to the end and that is worth it, football gives back to you in this way," Rakitic said.

"But we have half the work left to do in Barcelona."

Coach Julen Lopetegui echoed that sentiment, adding: "The team played a great game against a Barcelona that arrived in good form.

"We played well, we defended well and it was a very beautiful game. Now, we have the most complicated and most difficult thing left, which is to play at the Camp Nou. We are aware of the challenge."

Barcelona have it all to do in their Copa del Rey semi-final after Jules Kounde and former Blaugrana midfielder Ivan Rakitic secured Sevilla a 2-0 win in Wednesday's first leg at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

The Copa remains Barca's most realistic chance of silverware this term, and Ronald Koeman's first trophy at the helm, but they will have to do it the hard way after slipping to their first defeat in 90 minutes since December 8, a run of 16 matches across all competitions.

Kounde got the first goal with 25 minute played, the 22-year-old centre-back charging forward to great effect a few moments after going close from just outside the box.

Barca dominated most of the second half with Sevilla seemingly happy to play on the counter, but the visitors could not breach Yassine Bounou's goal and Rakitic finished them off on the break as Julen Lopetegui's side made it seven wins on the bounce.

 

Mauricio Pochettino urged people not to mistake France Football for Paris Saint-Germain amid continued talk of Lionel Messi moving to the Parc des Princes.

Messi, who attempted to force a switch from Barcelona prior to this season, is due to be out of contract at Camp Nou at the end of the campaign.

He has been frequently linked with PSG and the latest edition of France Football magazine ratcheted up the speculation, as the cover of the magazine featured Messi mocked up wearing a PSG shirt.

That will do little to improve the mood in the Barcelona camp, with head coach Ronald Koeman having previously accused PSG midfielder Angel Di Maria of disrespect.

Koeman's comments followed Messi's Argentina team-mate Di Maria saying there is a "big chance" the six-time Ballon d'Or winner will join PSG.

Pochettino was again asked about Messi prior to PSG's Coupe de France tie at Caen, which takes place on Wednesday.

The PSG head coach told a pre-match media conference: "I think we are talking about a magazine that has nothing to do with Paris Saint-Germain.

"When a player speaks, he might speak with emotion and affection, but there is no type of controversial situation here that we have thought up at the club.

"At no point has there been a lack of perspective. At no point has anything happened that is incorrect.

"I understand that players can talk and say whatever they like and that goes for Barcelona, Real Madrid. They might talk about fellow footballers at other clubs.

"Here we have total respect for every club and every player. We must not confuse what was said in France Football with PSG itself."

Ander Herrera does not believe it is possible for Paris Saint-Germain to add Lionel Messi to an all-star attack that already includes Neymar and Kylian Mbappe due to Financial Fair Play reasons.

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi is out of contract with Barcelona at the end of the season and has been strongly linked with French champions PSG and Premier League leaders Manchester City.

PSG already have superstar forwards Neymar and Mbappe on their books, with the Ligue 1 giants in talks over extending both players' lucrative contracts beyond the end of the 2021-22 season.

However, as rumours persist over a possible end-of-season switch to the Parc des Princes for Messi, who saw details of his five-year contract made public last week, Herrera has cast doubt over whether a move is feasible for his side.

"Messi, Neymar and Mbappe together? I don't know how that would work with Financial Fair Play, but I don't think so," he told El Larguero. 

Former Manchester United midfielder Herrera was unwilling to discuss the transfer rumours in any further detail, though, out of respect for Barcelona.

"I'm not going to get into this one," he said. "When everyone at Barca was talking about Neymar, inside and outside the club, we did not like it.

"I'm not going to do something that I don't like being done to me. I have a lot of respect for Barca, Messi, his coach and his team-mates.

"It is not a strategy. Me, I will not speak about him. I respect those who do it, but I put myself in the shoes of the club in which Messi has evolved."

Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman last week accused PSG of being "disrespectful" for continuing to discuss Messi in public after Angel Di Maria encouraged talk of a high-profile transfer going through.

Herrera added: "If I were I at Barca, I would not like people talking about Messi. It does not seem to me to be a lack of respect, but I will not do it."

Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are still eyeing Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

Unsurprisingly, Messi's future remains a talking point with his contract with the LaLiga giants expiring at the end of the season.

And the two clubs most strongly linked with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner remain interested.

 

TOP STORY – PSG, MAN CITY STILL EYEING MESSI

Paris Saint-Germain are quietly continuing their push to sign Barcelona star Lionel   Messi , according to France Football.

The Ligue 1 giants have angered Barca boss Ronald Koeman as those connected with PSG have regularly discussed Messi.

ESPN says Manchester City are also still tracking Messi, but will wait until March or April before making more of a move.

ROUND-UP

- Out of contract at Real Madrid in 2022, Raphael Varane 's future is unclear. Marca reports the LaLiga giants suspect the defender will not renew and they could sell him for €50million at the end of this season as a result, with PSG and Manchester United interested.

- Madrid are favourites to land Bayern Munich star David Alaba . The Telegraph reports Alaba's wage demands, believed to be around £20m per year, are too high for Chelsea . Alaba is set to leave the Bundesliga giants when his contract expires at the end of the season.

- United 's sights may be elsewhere. The Independent claims RB Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate is their main centre-back target ahead of 2021-22. Konate has also been linked to Liverpool and Chelsea .

- Arsenal want a young left-back to learn from Kieran Tierney, according to The Athletic.

Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti said he is excited about the prospect of playing alongside Lionel Messi at the Ligue 1 champions.

Barcelona superstar Messi is out of contract at season's end and the six-time Ballon d'Or winner has been heavily linked with PSG and Premier League giants Manchester City.

As Messi's future dominates headlines, PSG star Verratti discussed his possible arrival in Paris.

"Of course, I would like to play with Messi," Italy international Verratti told Canal+.

"To have him in the squad would be something magnificent, one more thing that football would give to me.

"I would give the ball to Neymar and Messi and stay behind to just [enjoy] watching them a bit."

PSG and Barcelona will meet in the Champions League last 16, with the first leg taking place at Camp Nou on February 16.

It will be a reunion for former Barca star Neymar, who has scored six goals in 11 Ligue 1 matches this season.

Neymar - who left Barca in a world-record €222million deal in 2017 - has scored 13 goals across all competitions.

"We are not stupid, we know that he is the best player and our role is to put him in the best possible condition," Verratti said. 

"He knows that when I have the ball, I'm looking for him. He always makes movements to receive the ball well."

Mauricio Pochettino's PSG are third in Ligue 1 after 24 rounds, three points adrift of leaders Lille following Sunday's 2-0 Classique victory against Marseille.

PSG face Caen in the Coupe de France on Wednesday before welcoming Nice to the French capital in Ligue 1 action on Saturday.

There was more penalty drama for Manchester City as the Premier League leaders visited reigning champions Liverpool on Sunday.

Gundogan skied his spot-kick at an empty Anfield, although it would not prove a costly miss as City ran out 4-1 winners to extend their advantage at the summit.

Pep Guardiola will no doubt be keen to correct a remarkable failing in his outstanding side's game, however.

City's record from 12 yards features in our quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action.
 

Sterling's penchant for pens wasted at City

As Gundogan, who later scored twice, blazed over in front of the Kop, it meant City have now accounted for four of the past six Premier League spot-kicks to miss the target - including three against Liverpool (also Riyad Mahrez in October 2018 and Kevin De Bruyne in November 2020).

City are five points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand but could be in an even more commanding position if they were more clinical from the spot.

In Raheem Sterling, City boast the player who has won more penalties (21) than any other in Premier League history, the latest seeing Fabinho trip the former Liverpool forward.

Sterling is unlikely to ease his side's penalty woes, however, having scored just one of his four attempts in the competition.

Only two players in Premier League history have a worse record after taking at least four penalties, with Mike Newell and Juninho Paulista each missing all their four attempts.

Nick Barmby, like Sterling, netted one of four. No player in the competition has ever taken five or more penalties and converted fewer than two.
 

Lloris longevity leading Ronaldo and Messi

Tottenham captain Hugo Lloris made his 500th top-flight appearance in the 2-0 win over West Brom, keeping his 173rd clean sheet.

Since his Ligue 1 bow for Nice in March 2006, no player has appeared more often in Europe's top five leagues than the World Cup-winning France goalkeeper.

Second on the list over that span is another goalkeeper still going strong in Inter's Samir Handanovic on 493 games, coincidentally also registering 173 clean sheets.

And the two biggest names of all sit third and fourth, Cristiano Ronaldo on 484 appearances just ahead of Lionel Messi's 480.

Karim Benzema (463) makes the top 10, while David Silva (448), Sergio Ramos (446) and Sergio Aguero (443) are all in the top 20.
 

Saints star not quite the free-kick king

James Ward-Prowse's latest free-kick goal came in a losing effort for Southampton at Newcastle United, but he nudged further up the all-time Premier League standings.

The spectacular effort at St James' Park was the England international's 10th direct free-kick strike in the competition, becoming the ninth player to that mark.

Ward-Prowse has scored with 13.9 per cent of his 72 direct free-kick shots, while 37 per cent of his 27 Premier League goals have come via this method.

Only Laurent Robert (11 of 23 goals for 47.8 per cent) and Sebastian Larsson (11 of 26 goals for 42.3 per cent) netted a greater share of their goals in the competition direct from set-pieces.

Ward-Prowse still has some way to go to match David Beckham's record of 20 free-kick goals, however. Thierry Henry (12), Gianfranco Zola (12) and Ronaldo (11), along with Robert and Larsson, are the others still above the Southampton star.

His tally of four this term trails only Beckham in 2000-01 and Robert the following season (both five) over a single campaign.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman praised the game-changing impact of Lionel Messi, who came off the bench to inspire a 3-2 LaLiga victory over Real Betis.

Messi was a shining light for Barcelona after being named among the substitutes, scoring an equaliser before unlocking Betis' defence with a sublime pass on Sunday.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored just 136 seconds following his introduction – his fastest goal as a substitute for Barca in LaLiga.

Trincao struck the 87th-minute winner for Barca, who are seven points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid, though the latter have two games in hand.

Koeman saluted superstar captain Messi post-match, telling reporters: "I always talk to the players and I express to them my ideas.

"I spoke to Lionel Messi yesterday about whether he was happy with having a rest and that if we needed him during the game, I was going to bring him on.

"That's what ended up happening. We were losing 1-0 and just a few minutes after coming on to the pitch he completely changed the game.

"He scored the equaliser and then added a lot to our play in the second half."

Messi – tipped to leave Barca amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City – has scored six goals in his past seven LaLiga games playing from the bench.

Koeman's Barcelona have won their past nine games away from home in all competitions – the third best streak ever for the Spanish giants after 13 in 2008-09 under Pep Guardiola and 10 in 2014-15 under Luis Enrique. Barcelona claimed LaLiga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League in those seasons.

Ronald Koeman was delighted with the character shown in Barcelona's victory over Real Betis but recognises his team must continue to prove their winning mentality.

Barca made it six away wins on the bounce in LaLiga as Trincao's late strike secured a 3-2 victory over Betis on Sunday.

Borja Iglesias' first-half tap-in put Betis ahead, but Lionel Messi scored 136 seconds after his introduction from the bench – his fastest goal as a Barca substitute – to restore parity before Victor Ruiz turned into his own net.

Ruiz atoned with a fine header to make it 2-2, yet Trincao, another visiting sub, had the final say to lift Barca back into second place in LaLiga.

"We must highlight the mentality of the team; in a tough game we have won for quality and for having an important character," Koeman told reporters.

"For me, the first half was not very good. We needed more to open up Betis when we had the ball. When we lost balls, we reacted late. I have not seen a team with much spark in the first half.

"The Copa del Rey [which Barca played in on Wednesday] is a trophy where we are in the semi-finals. It is the shortest way to win something.

"It is important, but we are Barca. You have to show mentality in any game in any competition."

Trincao's strike, which took a slight deflection on its way into the top corner, was the 21-year-old's first LaLiga goal.

However, the winger insisted the most important factor for him was helping Barca to secure the points.

"I didn't need to score, just do my job. You have to help. I'm very happy for the team and the victory," said Trincao, who became the fifth Portuguese player to score for Barca since the turn of the century, after Deco (13 goals), Andre Gomes (three), Nelson Semedo (two) and Ricardo Quaresma (one).

"We changed our attitude in the second half. It was the most important thing for the victory. We want to win everything and we are going to do everything possible to win.

"The spirit of my team-mates helps me a lot. They have all congratulated me for the goal."

Barca have now won their past nine away games in all competitions, the third-best streak ever for the club after 13 in 2008-09 and 10 in the 2014-15 campaign.

They sit seven points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid, although the gap will be back at 10 points should Diego Simeone's team overcome Celta Vigo on Monday.

Lionel Messi woke up a sleepy Barcelona and Trincao fired a brilliant late winner as Ronald Koeman's side snatched a 3-2 victory at Real Betis. 

Club captain Messi began Sunday's game as a substitute, taking a rare rest as Barcelona began with a front three of Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite. 

But with Barcelona trailing after Borja Iglesias struck in the first half, Koeman called on his deadliest weapon and he duly delivered, scoring a fine equaliser before playing a sublime pass to unlock the Betis defence for a second time. 

Victor Ruiz put the ball into his own net from Jordi Alba's cross as Barcelona went ahead, before making amends at the other end of the pitch to head Betis level at 2-2 in the 75th minute, but Trincao struck a terrific 87th-minute winner, his shot clipping the underside of the bar as it sailed past Joel Robles.

Will he leave Paris Saint-Germain or not?

That is the question regarding French star Kylian Mbappe.

Real Madrid are keen, but they are reportedly prepared to wait.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID WAITING FOR MBAPPE

Real Madrid have decided to wait to sign Kylian Mbappe until Paris Saint-Germain put the French star up for sale, according to Marca.

LaLiga champions Madrid have been tipped to sign Mbappe, who has also been linked with Premier League holders Liverpool.

PSG are trying to re-sign Mbappe as his contract runs out in 2022, and if they are unsuccessful amid their pursuit of Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, Madrid are ready to pounce.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca says Sergio Ramos' knee injury could spell the end of his illustrious career with Madrid. Ramos is out of contract at season's end and the star captain has been linked to the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, PSG, Chelsea and Juventus.

Liverpool are interested in Leeds United winger Raphinha, reports Football Insider. The Brazilian only moved to Elland Road at the start of the season.

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims Juventus are hoping to sign Roma sensation Nicolo Zaniolo.

Ronald Koeman has reiterated his desire for Lionel Messi to stay at Barcelona, although he once again acknowledged it is the player who will make the final decision.

Messi wanted to leave Barca last year but stayed on to see out the final year of his contract, details of which were recently leaked to the Spanish press.

The revelation of Messi's earnings – potentially worth in excess of €555million over the course of four years – came as Barca's debts reportedly rose above €1.1billion, with the coronavirus pandemic dealing a huge blow to the club's finances.

Despite the speculation surrounding his future, Messi has continued to perform for Barca, scoring 16 goals across all competitions this season.

He missed two games due to suspension in January but returned to score against Rayo Vallecano in the Copa del Rey, followed by the opener in Barca's most recent LaLiga match, a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Koeman said in midweek that he still hoped Messi would eventually choose to remain at Barca and extend his contract, though the coach conceded he was not confident of that happening.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's game with Real Betis, the former Netherlands boss again stressed Messi's future is in his own hands.

"I said the other day: I think there's one person that can decide his future and that is Leo Messi himself," Koeman told a news conference.

"Us as a club and me as a manager, of course, I would like that he stays here for many more years and we can try to make him feel good, make sure he's happy, because if he's happy, like he is this season, he gives us a lot of quality, which we need.

"He is a player with incredible talent and, on top of that, I think his morale is also very high at the moment; he's got good energy and he helps us a lot. The future is in his hands."

Messi has created 14 goalscoring chances following a ball carry (moving with the ball five or more metres) in LaLiga this season – more than any other player – although he has failed to assist in this way. 

The 33-year-old has an exceptional record against Betis, having had a direct hand in 31 goals in 21 LaLiga appearances against the Andalusian club, scoring 21 times and providing 10 assists, while he has either scored or assisted on each of his past five league visits to Benito Villamarin.

Messi is still the main man at Barca, but Antoine Griezmann has finally rediscovered the form which earned him his big-money move from Atletico Madrid.

Griezmann scored twice and set up two more as Barca laboured to a 5-3 extra-time victory over Granada in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, a result which Koeman celebrated passionately on the touchline.

"I remember that I called him when I signed for Barcelona," Koeman said of Griezmann, who ranks fifth in the Blaugrana squad for league chances created this season (21) but leads the way on assists (four), while his goal tally of six is bettered only by Messi (12).

"I told him that I had a lot of confidence in him. I told him that he should know that he is important.

"Although he started without effectiveness, he has recovered. I have never doubted him. Besides, he is also his own critic.

"You can't ask for more from Griezmann, he's very important to us.

"I can't deny that the other day I was very happy after the game. I don't know for how long. Today it's sunny and tomorrow it may rain.

"I really liked the game the other day, but tomorrow is another game. We have to prove ourselves yet again that we are on the right track."

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