Barcelona president Joan Laporta is "convinced" Lionel Messi will sign a new contract to stay with the LaLiga giants.

Messi is out of contract at the end of the season and the 33-year-old's future with Barca is far from certain amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

Laporta remains determined to re-sign Messi, who has spent his entire senior career at Camp Nou.

As Barca prepare for Saturday's Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, Laporta was asked about the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

"Everything is progressing adequately," Laporta told Deportes Cuatro.

"I will do everything within the club's capabilities to get him to stay. That's what we're doing. Messi is motivated.

"He is an extraordinary person and I am convinced that he will want to continue at Barca."

Messi has scored a league-high 23 goals and supplied eight assists in 28 LaLiga appearances for Barca this season.

In total, Messi has netted 29 goals across all competitions in 2020-21.

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino said he will "fight with all my energies" to keep Real Madrid target Kylian Mbappe in the French capital.

Mbappe has long been tipped to join LaLiga champions Madrid, though PSG remain in contract negotiations with the star forward.

The World Cup-winning France international is contracted to PSG until 2022 and Pochettino is confident Mbappe will remain in Paris, where team-mate Neymar has been linked with a return to Barcelona.

"Mbappe to Real Madrid? I'll fight with all my energies to keep Kylian here at PSG," Pochettino told El Larguero.

"PSG are doing everything possible to keep Neymar and Mbappe.

"I am equally optimistic that Mbappe will stay. They both have a huge commitment."

While there are long-term doubts over Mbappe and Neymar, PSG have been linked with blockbuster moves for superstar Barca captain Lionel Messi and Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos.

Messi and Ramos are both out of contract at the end of the season and their futures remain uncertain.

PSG – through to the Champions League semi-finals against Manchester City after eliminating holders Bayern Munich – have reportedly emerged as strong suitors for six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi and Spain centre-back Ramos.

"Surely soon it will be known what happens with Leo Messi future and contract," Pochettino said.

Pochettino added: "Sergio Ramos? I don't like to talk about players who are not in my team.

"There are a lot of rumours... here at PSG we're working to improve the team."

Bayern Munich will approach Wednesday's quarter-final second leg against Paris Saint Germain with the confidence expected of Champions League holders.

Sure, they lost 3-2 in an enthralling meeting at the Allianz Arena last week and are without star striker Robert Lewandowski, but Hansi Flick's men had more than enough chances to have emerged victorious and face up to a PSG defence likely to be without the influential Marquinhos.

The main problem for Bayern is Kylian Mbappe's apparent bid to turn the competition into his own personal playground.

Having put Barcelona to the sword with a hat-trick at Camp Nou in the previous round, the France forward was PSG's match-winner once more with a brace in Bavaria.

When the second leg gets under way, Mbappe will be 22 years and 115 days old. No player has scored more than his 27 goals in the Champions League by that age. For reference, Lionel Messi had 18, Raul 12, Wayne Rooney 12 and Cristiano Ronaldo three at the same vintage.

A place among the Champions League greats looks to be Mbappe's for the taking and we've decided to compare his Barcelona and Bayern performances to some of the most memorable goalscoring outings of recent years on the biggest stage.

Lionel Messi – Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal: April 6, 2010

A second-leg penalty from Mbappe as PSG overcame Barcelona 5-2 on aggregate in the round of 16 made him the youngest player in Champions League history to reach 25 goals at 22 years and 80 days, usurping the great Messi.

Of course, Mbappe still has plenty more to accomplish if he is to get close to Messi's deeds in the competition. The six-time Ballon d'Or winner has won Europe's top competition four times. Barca were triumphant finalists in 2009 and 2011, with Messi netting in each game against Manchester United. They fell short in 2009-10, but a dominant quarter-final win over Arsenal that season found him at his very best.

The Gunners battled to a thrilling 2-2 draw at Emirates Stadium and led at Camp Nou through Nicklas Bendtner, but the tie was as good as over before half-time as Messi compiled a blistering hat-trick – smashing in from the edge of the area, finding the roof of the next with an opportunistic effort and then racing clear to sublimely lob Manuel Almunia.

He nutmegged the Arsenal goalkeeper having dribbled through a bedraggled defence for his and Barcelona's fourth. Messi's haul came from eight shots overall, with six on target. Three goals came from his impeccable left boot, with the second right footed. He stamped his mark all over the contest, completing 46 of 52 passes and making 77 touches – a greater level of overall involvement than any other performance on this list.

Robert Lewandowski – Borussia Dortmund 4-1 Real Madrid: April 24, 2013

Injury has robbed us of the Mbappe v Lewandowski showdown we crave and the quarter-final first leg might have panned out differently if Bayern had been able to call upon their attacking talisman.

Lewandowski's deadly finishing has been a constant over the past decade and he produced a breakout performance in the 2013 semi-finals against Real Madrid, while still at Borussia Dortmund.

The Poland striker reached to volley home Mario Gotze's eighth-minute cross and controlled Marco Reus' mis-hit shot to finish smartly early in the second half – prompting a run of three goals in 16 minutes as Lewandowski showed immaculate close control to rifle into the top corner before converting a penalty in similarly emphatic fashion.

All Lewandowski's goals came from inside the area, all with his right foot as he netted four of five attempts on target (seven in total) to fire Dortmund towards an all-Bundesliga final against his future employers.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid 4-2 Bayern Munich (aet): April 18, 2017

Mbappe has the opportunity to build on eight goals in this season's competition in the return against Bayern – the joint-most by a French player in a single campaign alongside Wissam Ben Yedder (2017-18) and David Trezeguet (2001-02).

In terms of huge one-season hauls, Ronaldo sets the gold standard. His 17 en-route to glory with Real Madrid in 2013-14 were followed by 16 in 2015-16 and 15 in 2017-18 as Los Blancos claimed three in a row.

In between, when Madrid went all the way in 2016-17, Ronaldo's personal total was – by his own remarkable standards – a relatively meagre 12. However, six of these came in quarter-final and semi-final hat-tricks versus Bayern and Atletico Madrid.

The Bayern treble was the most dramatic as Madrid diced with elimination. They lost 2-1 in 90 minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu but Ronaldo would not be denied, netting in the 76th minute and then twice more in extra time to complete a perfect hat-trick from nine attempts, five of which were on target.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Juventus 3-0 Atletico Madrid: March 12, 2019

Ronaldo's ambition of winning a sixth Champions League at a third club looks set to come up short after Juventus's meek exit against Porto last month. But during his first season in Turin, everything appeared to be falling into place against a familiar foe.

Atletico Madrid won the first leg of the last-16 encounter 2-0, but the writing was on the wall from the moment Ronaldo powered in a towering back-post header in the 27th minute.

Early in the second half, Jan Oblak could only claw away another headed Ronaldo attempt from behind the goal line and the Atlei goalkeeper had no chance when faced with penalty from the Portugal great five minutes from time.

Ronaldo netted with all three of his attempts on target, while his five efforts overall on the night had an xG value of 1.39.

Lucas Moura – Ajax 2-3 Tottenham: May 8, 2019

The 2018-19 season provided relentless drama when it came to improbable comebacks and Tottenham were surely down and out when 2-0 behind after 35 minutes Amsterdam, nursing a 3-0 semi-final aggregate deficit against an Ajax side who had already seen off Real Madrid and Juventus. Enter Lucas Moura.

The Brazilian forward, leading the line for Spurs in Harry Kane's injury absence, streamed into the Ajax penalty area to pull one back early in the second half and by the time he engineered space to dispatch a fine left-footed finish in the 59th minute, the whole complexion of the contest had changed.

Five minutes of stoppage time had just expired when Lucas clipped a third with his trusty left boot to break Ajax hearts. Opta began collecting xG data in the Champions League in 2013-14. Of the hat-tricks on this list with those figures available, Lucas' is the only one with an overall shot value (0.88) below an xG of one.

Kylian Mbappe – Barcelona 1-4 Paris Saint-Germain: February 16, 2021

Despite Messi putting Barcelona ahead with a first-half penalty, Mbappe soon took charge. Magnificent close control, nimble movement and a thumping finish with his left brought PSG level.

Mbappe was again happy to crash home with his weaker foot on the other side of half-time and curled in a majestic strike on the counter-attack after Moise Kean made it three. Four of his six attempts (xG 1.84) were on target in an all-action display.

It made Mbappe the third player in Champions League history to score a hat-trick against Barcelona after Faustino Asprilla for Newcastle United and Andriy Shevchenko for Dynamo Kiev in 1997.

Kylian Mbappe – Bayern Munich 2-3 Paris Saint-Germain: April 7, 2021

Mauricio Pochettino's men overwhelmed Barcelona at Camp Nou but were forced to play a different game against Bayern last week, spending long spells on the back foot.

This gave Mbappe the chance to show his ruthless side as he scored from each of his two shots, albeit helped by an error from Manuel Neuer for the opener. A fit-again Neymar laid on that goal and he and Mbappe have assisted one another 10 times in the Champions League since joining forces in 2017-18 – at least three more than any other pair during this period.

Neymar also set up compatriot Marquinhos to make it 2-0 before Eric Maxim Choupo Moting and Thomas Muller brought Bayern level.

Mbappe's electrifying pace and unerring poise were again on display when he cut inside Jerome Boateng to send the winner fizzing past Neuer at his near post. His five away goals in the knockout rounds is already a single-season record in the Champions League. To earn the chance to add to that number, there is first some mouth-watering business to attend to at Parc des Princes.

Barcelona are hopeful superstar captain Lionel Messi has not played his last El Clasico for the LaLiga giants, said director Guillermo Amor.

Messi is out of contract at the end of the season and his future with Barca is far from certain amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

New Barca president Joan Laporta remains determined to re-sign Messi, who has spent his entire senior career at Camp Nou.

Amor was asked about Messi's future after Barca lost Saturday's Clasico 2-1 at Real Madrid.

"We hope not," Amor told reporters following the match when asked if it was Messi's final Clasico showdown.

"We hope he decides to stay at Barcelona and plays many more Clasicos with Barcelona." 

Messi had seven attempts on goal against Madrid, including when he hit the post with an audacious effort directly from a corner towards the end of the first half.

No Barcelona player had more shots, but Messi could not find a way through in what could potentially be his final tangle with Madrid in this famous fixture.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner has now gone seven Clasicos in all competitions without scoring – the longest drought of his career against Los Blancos.

Barca missed the chance to move top of the league standings on Saturday – Ronald Koeman's men left in third position and a point adrift of Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

Real Madrid prevailed 2-1 over Barcelona in a rain-soaked and chaotic Clasico in the Spanish capital.

Saturday's showdown proved a contrasting story for the two star forwards on display as Zinedine Zidane's men replaced city rivals Atletico Madrid at the top of LaLiga.

There were also a couple of moments of history before a red card in a frantic finale.

Here, we look at some of the standout statistics to emerge from the latest chapter in the eternal rivalry.

 

Seven not heaven for Messi

Lionel Messi had seven attempts on goal, including when he hit the post with an audacious effort directly from a corner towards the end of the first half.

No Barcelona player had more shots, but Messi could not find a way through in what could potentially be his final tangle with Madrid in this famous fixture.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner has now gone seven Clasicos in all competitions without scoring – the longest drought of his career against Los Blancos.

Simply the Benz

At the head of Madrid's attack, Karim Benzema simply cannot stop scoring, irrespective of the opponents.

His sensational backheel flick to convert Lucas Vazquez's 13th-minute cross was a finish that is sure to be cherished for years to come.

Benzema has now scored in his past seven LaLiga games, netting nine times overall during this period.

The Frenchman is the fourth Madrid player in the 21st century to have scored in seven consecutive top-flight outings after Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Kroos ends dead ball torpor

From Ronaldo to David Beckham, Madrid have rarely been shy of free-kick specialists.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, that Toni Kroos' strike on Saturday made him the first player in white to score a direct free-kick in El Clasico this century.

Sure, it deflected off Sergino Dest and bounced off Jordi Alba's head on the goal line, but they all count. Right, Toni?

Mignueza opens his account

Oscar Mingueza endured a torrid first half as Vinicius Junior ran him ragged, but the Barcelona defender bounced back after the break.

Mingueza appeared in the Madrid penalty area to convert when substitute Antoine Griezmann dummied Alba's cross.

The previous Barca defender to score on his first appearance in El Clasico was Marc Bartra in the 2014 Copa de Rey final.

Ref on Casemiro's case

Mingueza was also involved in another key moment, when Casemiro fouled him outside the Madrid box in the final minute of normal time.

That earned the combative Brazilian his second booking and only the second sending off of his Madrid career.

During this time, Casemiro has committed 478 fouls in all competitions. All in all, not a bad ratio.

At half-time in Saturday's Clasico, Barcelona had out-passed Real Madrid by 390 to 172 and enjoyed 69 per cent of the possession. A fat lot of good it did them.

Madrid were 2-0 up having had more shots on goal, with eight to Barca's six and more on target (3-1). Federico Valverde had also hit the post as things threatened to get truly ugly for the Blaugrana.

Ronald Koeman has seen a remarkable turnaround since the new year, with Barca transformed from also-rans to many people's title favourites heading into this 2-1 defeat to their bitter rivals.

But against elite opponents, as in painful reverses earlier this season at the hands of Madrid, Atletico, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, they again came up short. For that, their coach must take his share of the blame.

During a prior run of 13 wins and one draw in LaLiga in 2021, Koeman frequently deployed a 3-4-2-1 formation and the result was some swashbuckling performances, most notably a 6-1 routing of Real Sociedad before last month's international break.

This week's last-gasp 1-0 victory against Real Valladolid was far more laboured and Koeman blinked. Antoine Griezmann, having formed a free-flowing forward trident with Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, was consigned to the bench at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Dembele was the match-winning hero against Valladolid but here cut an isolated figure as a lone striker, with Messi dropping deeper and deeper into midfield, trying to make something – anything – happen.

For all their numbers in the middle, Barcelona could not turn their possession into clear chances, nor could their apparent control prevent them from being eviscerated time and again on the break.

Karim Benzema's backheel finish for the opener was of the highest class, but Barca looked clueless as the white shirts rushed towards them.

Perhaps mindful of his poor record in big games this season, Koeman abandoned his successful formula for an approach that left Barca painfully between two stools.

 

Messi audaciously shot directly from a corner just before half-time, outfoxing Thibaut Courtois with vicious dip to hit the post. It was the latest of countless demonstrations of his genius in this fixture, but it was also a shocking indictment of Barca's overall play that it felt like a legitimate ploy.

The enduring and repeated image of the first period was Oscar Mingueza sprinting back towards his own goal wearing an anguished look as the effervescent Vinicius Junior showed him a clean pair of heels. Madrid's Brazilian forward enjoyed a career-best outing against Liverpool this week and was in no mood for the fun to stop.

Mingueza tired of that torment and took himself off to the Madrid box in the 60th minute to shin one in after Griezmann – on at half-time – dummied a cross from Jordi Alba, the full-back who was all at sea on the first goal before failing to head Toni Kroos' deflected free-kick off the line

Having made defenders look silly earlier on, it was Vinicius' turn to revert to slapstick as he broke clear with a chance to seal the points, only to botch a pass to Benzema where the idea was bad and the execution was worse.

To add to a mounting sense of chaos in torrential rain, Zinedine Zidane started taking off all his best players with an eye on Anfield.

The concluding moments were an encapsulation of this undulating LaLiga title race – hard to predict, full of errors and utterly captivating. Martin Braithwaite had a soft penalty appeal rejected amid great fury, Casemiro clumped into Mingueza and his perpetual mayhem to earn a second yellow card.

Top since November, Atletico Madrid will go back above their neighbours at the summit if they beat Eibar on Sunday. All three heavyweights will still fancy their chances, including Barca on account of their form leading into this weekend.

That is why this felt like such a missed opportunity for Koeman. His team have been the best in the country since January but he decided not to be bold when the stakes were highest.

For all the bridges built with a distant fanbase, turbulent boardroom and a star player whose future remains in the balance, this was a damaging backwards step.

And what of Messi? As things stand, his last act in this eternal rivalry will be delivering a free-kick for Illaix Moriba to hit the crossbar before a roving Marc-Andre ter Stegen hacked away at the rebound and booted the ball up Trincao's backside.

Perhaps he'll hang around after all.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane says he hopes Lionel Messi stays with Barcelona amid speculation about his playing future beyond this season.

Messi has been linked with a move away from Barcelona, including a reunion with former mentor Pep Guardiola at Manchester City this off-season.

The 33-year-old Argentinian has spent his entire professional career with Barcelona, whom he joined as a junior in 2000.

"Hopefully he stays at Barcelona," Zidane said, speaking ahead of Saturday's Clasico which may be Messi's last.

"He's good there and it's also good for the Spanish league."

Another player who has been linked with an off-season move is Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, who is coming off contract.

Ramos will miss Saturday's match with Barcelona due to a muscle injury.

"Hopefully it won't be his last Clasico," Zidane added. "He won't play tomorrow, it is a shame. But, I hope he stays here."

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman reiterated that sentiment, saying he hopes Ramos remains with Madrid beyond this season.

"The best for our league is to keep the best players until their last minute of professional football, like Leo Messi," Koeman said.

"You cannot compare with Sergio Ramos because one is a defender and the other is a striker. But both players have been very important for their clubs.

"Hopefully, Sergio Ramos will stay at Real Madrid and Leo will stay with us."

Ronald Koeman needs his whole Barcelona squad playing at their top level alongside Lionel Messi in Saturday's crucial Clasico, while he welcomed the return of Gerard Pique to his squad.

A patchy run of form from Atletico Madrid, in which the leaders in LaLiga have won only four of their past 10 top-flight matches, means Barca are only a point off top spot with Madrid just three back.

Saturday's contest, at Madrid's Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, could now have a huge bearing on the outcome of the title race in Spain this season.

Messi is the top scorer in El Clasico for all competitions (26) and in LaLiga (18) but has not scored in his previous six encounters against Madrid, matching his longest run without a goal in the fixture.

"Hopefully Messi will be decisive for us tomorrow," Koeman told a pre-match news conference.

"We need the best Messi, but above all we need the best Barca. And obviously we need Leo to have a good game, a good attack."

Barca's squad for the trip to Madrid has been boosted by the return of veteran centre-back Pique, who has been sidelined for just over a month since spraining his knee in the 3-0 win over Sevilla that secured a comeback 3-2 aggregate win in their Copa del Rey semi-final.

The versatile Sergi Roberto is also included in the squad having been out since February with a thigh issue.

"They are two important players due to their quality and personality," Koeman added.

"They lack rhythm but they are physically well, very excited to help the team, and it is important to have almost all the players available.

"For me, every player has to be in good physical and mental condition, so they all have a chance to play. 

"Every player has to prove this, and my role will be to pick the 11 best players to start the match."

Barca have been on a sensational run in LaLiga, going unbeaten in 19 matches and winning 13 out of the past 14.

The last time these sides met, Madrid ran out 3-1 winners at Camp Nou and Los Blancos are aiming for a third straight win in this match for the first time since 1978 and a first LaLiga double since the 2007-08 campaign.

But Koeman insists the outcome of this game will not be decisive in determining the end-of-season outcome at the top of LaLiga.

"The result in principle is not decisive because there are still many games to go and it will be difficult to win every game," Koeman said.

"But it is true that the team that wins will see their morale increased.

"El Clasico is a different game from the others, there is always a lot of emotion. Barca are having a great season, with many points achieved that allows us to fight for La Liga, but Madrid is still Madrid and we have to respect them and be at our best.

"We have improved a lot from the last Clasico. Although in the last Clasico, we played well, in my opinion. 

"We were better in the first half, but we lost in the second half with the intervention of the VAR. But we have improved in effectiveness."

Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz has been ruled out of Saturday's clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and his replacement could raise a few eyebrows.

Experienced whistler Lahoz had been assigned El Clasico but on Friday it was revealed he is suffering with a muscle injury, with Jesus Gil Manzano named to take on the job instead.

The 44-year-old Lahoz officiated in Wednesday's Champions League clash between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.

The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) announced: "The refereeing committee for professional competition (CACP) has changed, due to a muscle injury, the appointment of referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the referee initially appointed to direct the match between Real Madrid and Barcelona on matchday 30 of the Primera Division. His replacement will be Jesus Gil Manzano."

Manzano is the referee who showed Barcelona captain Lionel Messi the first red card of his club career in January's Supercopa de Espana final defeat to Athletic Bilbao.

Messi swung an arm at Asier Villalibre in the final moments of extra time, and the Argentinian was dismissed following a VAR review.

Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman refused to discuss the referee after that match, saying: "It's better if I don't talk."

Manzano also previously red-carded former Barcelona superstars Luis Suarez and Neymar during their Camp Nou careers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koeman gets to know his squad

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frenkie finds his feet

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The heir apparent

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Messi's miraculous revival

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Karim Benzema expects the title race in Spain to go down to the wire, meaning Real Madrid must treat every remaining LaLiga fixture as if it were a final.

Atletico Madrid at one stage in the season held a commanding lead at the summit, but Diego Simeone's side have now won just four of their past 10 fixtures, allowing their rivals to close the gap.

Barcelona sit second - just a point behind Atleti in the standings - having produced a 19-game unbeaten run since a shock 2-1 defeat away to Cadiz on December 5, 2020.

However, Madrid have already beaten their Clasico rivals once this season, the reigning league champions triumphing 3-1 at Camp Nou. A similar result on Saturday in what Benzema describes as "the greatest game in the world" would see them climb above Barca.

"There are still quite a few games to go," Benzema told LaLiga World.

"I think this league is going to go down to the wire, because it's still very competitive. We've got to treat every game as if it were a final."

On the fixture itself, he said: "In my opinion, El Clasico is the greatest game in the world. Not just for me but for everyone. There's an incredible history between the two clubs, it's always a key game.

"As always, it's going to be a tough match against a team who like to have the ball. But we also like to have the ball.

"I think a lot of the game will take place in the middle of the park. But just like when we played at Camp Nou, we've got to go all out to win because this is a final for us.

"They love to have possession, they've got a good keeper [Marc-Andre ter Stegen] and then they've got [Lionel] Messi. He is so important for Barcelona in every way. We've got to take care because he's very dangerous indeed."

Having scored 21 goals to help his team secure the title in the 2019-20 season, Benzema already has 18 in 25 league appearances this term.

The Frenchman is averaging a goal every 122.4 minutes in the competition during the campaign, while he has also provided six assists.

While Messi tops the scoring charts with 23, the Barca talisman has only managed one more goal in open play (17 to 16) than Benzema, who is playing with a freedom on the pitch that has benefited both him personally and also the team.

"I don't know if it's my best season. Every year I start from zero and aim to do better than the previous campaign," Benzema said.

"I'm on a good goal-scoring run and hope to keep it up, keep helping out my team, putting points on the board, keep winning games.

"But the most important thing is winning those games. I feel free on the pitch. I do what I like on the field, I help the team set up moves and I finish them."

Benzema has scored at least one goal in each of his past six LaLiga games - he could become the fourth Real Madrid player to find the net in seven or more in a row in the competition in the 21st century, following in the footsteps of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, who achieved the feat four times, and Gareth Bale.

Zinedine Zidane's Madrid can also make it three wins in a row against Barcelona for the first time since 1978; they have not done the league double over their opponents since the 2007-08 season.

Barcelona rising star Pedri admits he is still shocked by some of the things Lionel Messi can do in training.

Midfielder Pedri has established himself as a key component of Ronald Koeman's plans during his first season at Camp Nou following his move from Las Palmas.

The 18-year-old has played 43 times in all competitions, more than any other Barca player in 2020-21, scoring three goals and providing six assists.

Pedri has created 50 goalscoring chances in those games, a tally bettered by just four team-mates, with Messi a remarkable 31 clear at the top on 101.

Messi has been directly involved in 40 goals this term, the fourth-best tally among players in Europe's top-five leagues, but his best form has come since the turn of the year: the Argentina star has either scored (18) or assisted (eight) a goal in each of his past 14 LaLiga games.

That form has helped Barca to enjoy an 18-game unbeaten run in the league, the longest such current streak in Europe's top-five leagues, standing them in good stead ahead of Sunday's Clasico.

For Pedri, simply training alongside the Barca captain is still an experience to savour.

"I've said lots of times, when I was young, I supported Barca, and I dreamt of doing what I am doing now," he said, courtesy of LaLiga World.

"I just try and forget that I'm playing alongside Leo, or [Sergio] Busquets, or any of the other incredible players in this team. I just try and forget about all that and imagine I'm playing in the playground back home. That really helps me to enjoy myself more.

"It's really unbelievable but although you've seen Leo Messi on the telly and live in action he still knocks you out with what he does in training sessions. I enjoy every day with him and I try to learn as much as I can from him."

Barca lost the reverse fixture 3-1 at home to Real Madrid but, as LaLiga's form team, they head into the contest in the capital as possible favourites as they bid to catch league leaders Atletico Madrid.

"I think it's super important because of what it means to the fans," Pedri said of the game. "The supporters really love this game and I used to love watching it, too. Now I'm a footballer I'm really looking forward to it, just as I did the first time around.

"It's a crucial game as far as LaLiga's concerned and we've got to do our best to take all three points, that's important for us and the fans. I think like all the Clasicos, it's going to be a tough game. They're a very good team and we've got to play very well if we want the three points. But we're all well prepared and focused and we know what we're up against.

"We never give up as far as the league title's concerned. As always, we're going to battle until the end and I think if we keep on taking the three points, we're going to be right up there at the end of the season."

Lionel Messi's future is a popular topic.

Messi wanted to leave Barcelona at the start of the season but opted to remain at Camp Nou.

With his contract expiring at the end of 2020-21, the Barca superstar is continuing to make headlines.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI WAITING ON BARCA

Barcelona have yet to make a move to re-sign superstar captain Lionel Messi, according to the front page of Wednesday's Marca.

Messi is out of contract at the end of the season and his future is far from certain, having been tipped to join either Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City.

Led by new president Joan Laporta, Barca are determined to retain the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

 

ROUND-UP

- Mundo Deportivo reports Ousmane Dembele wants to continue with Barca, but speculation is mounting that Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar could return to Camp Nou. Neymar – who left Barca for PSG in a world-record €222million deal in 2017 – has been negotiating a new contract in the French capital. Dembele has previously been linked with Manchester United.

Manchester City are eyeing a new striker but they are unwilling to spend "crazy" money, claims Fabrizio Romano. With Sergio Aguero – linked with Chelsea, Inter, PSG and Barcelona – leaving on a free transfer, Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland has emerged as City's prime target, while Tottenham star Harry Kane is another option.

- Goal says Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli and Juventus' Federico Bernardeschi could swap clubs. Both players have struggled this season and they could reportedly be involved in an exchange deal. Romagnoli has attracted interest from Barca and Chelsea.

- Eurosport reports United and Liverpool could go head-to-head in a battle to sign RB Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate. The 21-year-old has been heavily linked with Liverpool, but United are also interested. Sevilla's Jules Kounde, Madrid captain Sergio Ramos and team-mate Raphael Varane, Villarreal's Pau Torres and Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly are also reportedly being monitored at Old Trafford.

- Romano claims there are "huge chances" for Hector Bellerin to leave Arsenal. The Spaniard was previously linked with PSG and Barca.

Ousmane Dembele thumped in a 90th-minute winner as Barcelona beat Real Valladolid 1-0 and cut Atletico Madrid's advantage at the top of LaLiga to a solitary point.

Ronald Koeman's resurgent side had won their previous five top-flight matches but were short of their best for much of the first half, with Kenan Kodro hitting the crossbar for Valladolid.

Lionel Messi and his team-mates tried to crank through the gears in the second half but struggled to find a breakthrough, even after Oscar Plano was sent off 11 minutes from time for a cynical foul on Dembele.

The France winger would have the final word, swiping home on the volley after Ronald Araujo made a nuisance of himself on the end of Frenkie de Jong's cross - setting up next weekend's pivotal Clasico showdown perfectly.

Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was back in action for the first time since Germany's humiliating 2-1 defeat to North Macedonia and he was relieved to see Kodro's header cannon to safety off the bar.

Messi won a free-kick in the 15th minute and clipped wide but the visitors continued to acquit themselves well.

Roque Mesa grazed the top of the netting with a speculative strike before Barca let the playmaker run unchallenged for around 30 yards to blast over.

Barcelona belatedly found some rhythm before the interval and Pedri linked up nicely with Messi to fire in a rasping low drive that Jordi Masip tipped against the right post.

Koeman's front three were all involved before the hour – Messi releasing Dembele to draw a brilliant low stop from Masip, with Antoine Griezmann sending an improvised diving header wide on the rebound.

Jordi Alba survived appeals for a penalty after the ball flicked off his hand inside the Barca box and Plano sliced wide on another threatening break.

A yellow card would arguably have been suffice for Plano's petulance and Valladolid buckled at the last in what felt like a huge moment in the title race.

Romelu Lukaku has starred for Inter since arriving from Manchester United in 2019.

Lukaku is spearheading Inter's quest for a Serie A title, with Antonio Conte's side clear atop the table.

His exploits, however, have not gone unnoticed in Europe.

 

TOP STORY – LUKAKU HAPPY AT INTER

Inter star Romelu Lukaku is flattered by Barcelona's interest but is not looking to leave the Nerazzurri, according to Mundo Deportivo.

Lukaku has been linked with Barca, Real Madrid and former club Chelsea following his exploits for Inter, who are closing in on the Scudetto.

But Lukaku is happy at Inter, with the Belgium international only possibly leaving San Siro should the Italian powerhouse seek to raise funds.

 

ROUND-UP

- Tuttosport reports Cristiano Ronaldo wants to see out his Juventus contract, which runs until June 2022. Ronaldo has been tipped to leave Turin, where Juve are struggling under Andrea Pirlo this season. Former clubs Madrid and United have emerged as possible destinations, as well as Paris Saint-Germain. However, Ronaldo is keen to continue at the club, should they qualify for the Champions League.

- PSG star Kylian Mbappe remains a priority signing for Madrid, claims Diario AS. Mbappe has been a long-term target in the Spanish capital, though the economic fallout following the coronavirus pandemic appears to have derailed Madrid's pursuit. But Los Blancos – also linked with in-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland – are still determined to prise Mbappe from Paris.

- Record reports United are ready to make a move for Sporting CP star Nuno Mendes, who has also been linked with Manchester City and Liverpool. United could reportedly use Alex Telles in a deal to sign the Portuguese full-back.

- Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli is eyeing a new deal amid interest from Barca and Chelsea, according to Calciomercato. Romagnoli is contracted to the Rossoneri until 2022. Barca's reported pursuit comes as they eye the likes of Bayern Munich star David Alaba, City duo Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero, Lyon forward Memphis Depay and Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.

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