Diego Simeone insists Atletico Madrid "always need" Joao Felix despite dropping the "extraordinary" forward in recent weeks.

Joao Felix scored one and assisted another as LaLiga leaders Atletico beat Valencia 3-1 on Sunday, but it was the club-record signing's first league start of 2021.

The Portugal forward had not scored in LaLiga since November 7, costing him his place in Simeone's starting XI.

Even against Valencia, having attempted three shots and made two key passes, Joao Felix was withdrawn after 62 minutes for Angel Correa.

It was a move that paid off as Correa added the third goal - Joao Felix having set Luis Suarez clear for the crucial second - and Simeone hailed his changing frontline as evidence of competition in the Atleti squad.

"Joao Felix is an extraordinary player," Simeone said. "We always need him.

"The competition is high, beautiful, good. They are all eager to play and we will have to give the time we can for the good of the team.

"[Joao Felix] is growing, as he has been doing since he arrived. He is important and everything he gives us helps us."

In maintaining his unbeaten home record against Valencia, which now stands at six wins and four draws from 10 LaLiga matches, Simeone took Atleti seven points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand over second-placed Real Madrid.

The Rojiblancos coach was not interested in assessing the state of play at the summit, though, instead turning attention to Atleti's next test on Sunday.

"Cadiz, nothing more," Simeone replied when asked about the advantage over Madrid and Barcelona, who are a further three points back from Los Blancos.

Joao Felix promised he has much more to offer Atletico Madrid after marking his first LaLiga start of 2021 with a goal and an assist against Valencia.

Sunday's 3-1 victory saw Joao Felix both score and create a goal for the third time in a game this season, more than any other Atleti player.

But the other standout displays from the club's record signing had come in the early weeks of the campaign.

Between the November international break and this clash at the Wanda Metropolitano, Joao Felix netted just once in all competitions, also supplying a single assist.

That underwhelming stretch saw the Portugal forward lose his place in the league XI, but a tight turnaround from Thursday's win at Eibar provided an opportunity he duly grasped.

Joao Felix cancelled out Uros Racic's spectacular Valencia opener with a smart finish ahead of Thierry Correia, before his second-half pass set Luis Suarez away to score the second. Angel Correa, who replaced Joao Felix, completed the scoring.

A return to form gave Joao Felix the opportunity to discuss his recent trials, although there are no hard feelings towards coach Diego Simeone.

"I can give so much more," said the 21-year-old, who played 62 minutes. "No footballer likes being on the bench, but it also happened to me at Benfica.

"I know what I am capable of and, when the coach chooses me to play, I have to do my best. I am calm. Cholo [Simeone] does what is best for the team."

Atleti president Enrique Cerezo was asked by Movistar for his take on Joao Felix's rollercoaster season.

"No-one doubts that Joao Felix is a great player," he replied. "If the coach decides to change him, it will be for some reason.

"But he does not have to get angry or upset, like everyone else. Neither the players, the coach nor the fans want to lose, and when you lose, you get mad."

There has been nothing inconsistent about the form of Suarez, who has 12 goals in his first 15 LaLiga games for Atleti, the best start to life at a new club by any player in Spain's top flight since Cristiano Ronaldo netted 13 in 15 matches for Real Madrid in 2009-10.

Joao Felix described Suarez as "lethal", while Cerezo sees the veteran's sensational form as justification of their pursuit of the former Barcelona striker.

"We have always thought that Luis Suarez was the best centre-forward in Europe," he said. "We are lucky that he is with us. Everyone is happy."

Seven straight wins have moved Atleti seven points clear of rivals Madrid and they still have a game in hand, but Cerezo is not getting carried away.

"You can lose [the title] or you can win it," he said. "We are in the middle of the season and there is a lot left. We are first but there is a lot left.

"When there are three games left, I'll tell you if we are champions. The team is doing very well and the players know very well what they have to do: score goals and win games."

Atletico Madrid restored their seven-point advantage at the top of LaLiga with a seventh straight victory as Joao Felix led their latest fightback in the 3-1 success against Valencia.

Diego Simeone's side had overturned an early deficit to beat Eibar three days earlier and were at it again at the Wanda Metropolitano, this time inspired by Joao Felix.

After a superb long-range Uros Racic opener stunned Atleti, their record signing scored his first LaLiga goal since November 7 to level matters and later laid on the second for Luis Suarez, Thursday's two-goal hero.

Substitute Angel Correa - on for Joao Felix - made sure of another win, which represented a vital response to Real Madrid's own triumph on Saturday, maintaining a healthy gap while the Rojiblancos still have a game in hand.

A lively, open start perhaps out of keeping with a typical Atletico match saw early chances at both ends, with Jaume Domenech denying Jose Gimenez and Jan Oblak blocking from Manu Vallejo before the spectacular 11th-minute breakthrough.

The Atleti goalkeeper was this time helpless at full stretch as Racic sensationally picked out the top-right corner with a swirling left-footed strike from 25 yards.

But the hosts were level midway through the first half when Joao Felix beat Thierry Correia to a deep corner and prodded beyond Domenech as Valencia's appeals for a foul somewhere in a busy penalty area fell on deaf ears.

And Valencia were fortunate not to concede a penalty shortly before half-time as Thomas Lemar stole in ahead of a dozing Maxi Gomez to reach a bouncing ball inside the box, only to see the foul given the other way.

Atleti continued to turn the screw and had their reward eight minutes after the restart, with Gabriel Paulista inexplicably standing off Suarez as he took Joao Felix's pass and calmly finished into the bottom-right corner from the left side of the area.

The result never seemed in serious jeopardy thereafter and Marcos Llorente cut a low ball back for Correa to sweep in 18 minutes from time to seal the points.

Even in these extraordinary times, Barcelona letting Luis Suarez go to Atletico Madrid is starting to look like the oddest decision of the season.

Suarez's double over Eibar on Thursday secured a 2-1 victory for the league leaders, who are seven points clear at the top with a game in hand over champions Real Madrid in second.

The Uruguay star, who has netted six in his past six league games for Atleti, is joint-top of the division's scoring charts alongside former team-mate Lionel Messi.

It seems increasingly likely that Suarez, and certainly Atletico, will be at the top of the tree come the end of 2020-21.

With the majority of sides having now played half of their matches, the Stats Perform AI team have run the numbers to simulate how the rest of the LaLiga campaign will play out – and it's good news for Diego Simeone.

 

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

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

 

ATLETICO WIN AT A CANTER

Atletico have been given a 75.1 per cent chance of winning LaLiga, according to the model.

Simeone's men are predicted to finish on 86 points, nine clear of the rest of the field. They are given just a 17.8 per cent chance of coming second and dropping outside the top four is considered practically impossible.

Barcelona and reigning champions Real Madrid are predicted to end with 77 points apiece, with just a 12.4 per cent chance each of pipping Atleti to the title. Madrid have a 41 per cent chance of finishing second, slightly above Barca's 39.4, having beaten Ronald Koeman's side 3-1 in the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou last October.

Those two are, at least, very likely to end up in a Champions League place. They are expected to be joined there by Sevilla, who have a 47.8 per cent chance of finishing fourth on 65 points, just three above Villarreal and six clear of Real Sociedad. The remaining European spot is predicted to be a close battle between Granada, Getafe and Real Betis, with Diego Martinez's men odds on to snatch it.

Valencia fans might be enduring a difficult time (again), and our sim has Los Che missing out on European football once more, if only by four points. That said, they still have a 3.6 per cent chance of a Europa League spot, which is better odds than those given to Supercopa de Espana winners Athletic Bilbao.

 

WOE FOR HUESCA

At the other end of a relatively tight table, in which just 11 points will separate seventh from 16th, it looks like Huesca are in for a tough run-in. They are given a 59.7 per cent chance of finishing bottom of the pile and just a 5.1 per cent shot at avoiding relegation, having won only once so far this term.

Osasuna are predicted to end up just four points above them, with the bottom three likely to be completed by Deportivo Alaves, although Elche will also be right in the mix. In fact, with those two tipped to finish level on 39 points, survival could come down to their head-to-head record, making their showdown on May 11 potentially decisive. Elche have the advantage there, having won the reverse game 2-0 away from home.

Real Valladolid are expected to have just enough to stay out of trouble, although they have scant room for manoeuvre, with our predictor giving them an equal 15.1 per cent chance of finishing 17th and 18th.

Eibar and Cadiz are looking likely to stay safe; indeed, Jose Luis Mendilibar's men, along with Celta Vigo and Athletic, are given a 0.1 per cent chance of gatecrashing the top four. They might well have boosted those odds this week were it not for that pesky Suarez.

Erling Haaland is one of the sought-after players in world football.

The Borussia Dortmund forward can reportedly take his pick from Europe's elite.

But if his agent Mino Raiola has his way, Camp Nou could be Haaland's next destination.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND COULD LEAVE BVB AT SEASON'S END

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland could leave the Bundesliga club for Barcelona at the end of the season, according to TV3 program Onze.

Haaland has been linked with the likes of Barca, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus following his exploits for Dortmund.

The Norway international forward reportedly has a €75million (£66.8m) release clause at the end of his second season in Dortmund, though he could depart sooner rather than later.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano says United are not working on a deal to sign Madrid captain Sergio Ramos. The Spanish superstar is out of contract at the end of the season, and he has been linked with Paris Saint-Germain, Juve, City, Chelsea and Liverpool. A move to Liverpool is reportedly not on the horizon due to his role in the injury to Mohamed Salah in the 2018 Champions League final.

City have joined Serie A champions Juve in the race to sign Sassuolo star Manuel Locatelli, reports the Daily Mail.

- According to Sky Sport Italia, Sportitalia and Tuttomercatoweb, Milan are set to meet with free agent Mario Mandzukic over the next 24 hours to discuss a short-term deal. Staying at San Siro and Sky Sport Italia says the Rossoneri are close to signing Torino midfielder Soualiho Meite on loan with the option to buy.

Arsenal are interested in Barca goalkeeper Neto, claims Sky Sports. With backup Runar Alex Runarsson struggling in London, the Gunners are hoping to bring in Neto on loan.

- Marca reports Barca are targeting Valencia star Jose Gaya to bolster their left-back position, while Villarreal's Alfonso Pedraza is another option.

Juventus are set to complete the signing of American defender Bryan Reynolds from MLS club Dallas, says Romano. The 19-year-old will join Benevento until June, before linking up with Juve.

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said he cannot understand how Real Madrid avoided conceding a crucial late penalty in their win against Eibar.

Zinedine Zidane's side clung on for a 3-1 victory after Lucas Vazquez's stoppage-time strike clinched all three points at Municipal de Ipurua.

Karim Benzema and Luka Modric had fired the Spanish champions into a two-goal lead inside 13 minutes before Kike hit back for the home side before the half-hour mark.

Eibar were pushing for a late equaliser when the hosts had appeals for a penalty turned down after the ball appeared to strike the arm of Sergio Ramos inside the penalty area.

Eibar head coach Jose Luis Mendilibar fumed about the incident, which was not reviewed by referee Jose Luis Munuera Montero.

Madrid's fifth straight win in all competitions left them level on points with Atletico but Koeman hinted Los Blancos were fortunate.

"The day of the Madrid match, I said something that doesn't need to be repeated," Koeman said.

"I think there are things that cannot be understood. I'm sure that if you ask 10 people if yesterday's game is a penalty, nine will say yes.

"The referee and his team have decided not to call it. But, well, we know."

Following Barca’s 2-2 draw against Valencia at Camp Nou, Koeman’s side sit fifth in the LaLiga table, eight points behind Atleti and Madrid.

The Catalans face 18th-placed Real Valladolid on Tuesday at Estadio Jose Zorrilla.

Ronald Koeman has put Barcelona's 2-2 draw with Valencia down to a lack of concentration from his players, rather than a problem with their attitude.

Barca were held at Camp Nou in Saturday's entertaining LaLiga clash and are now eight points adrift of Atletico Madrid having played a game more than the leaders.

Mouctar Diakhaby scored a free header to give Valencia the lead – a joint-high fourth league goal Barca have conceded from a corner this term along with Huesca – but Lionel Messi equalised and young defender Ronald Araujo put the hosts in front.

Maxi Gomez profited from yet more slack defending 21 minutes from time to score against the Catalan giants for a fourth game running, however, as Valencia became the seventh team to stop their opponents winning in 13 games this term.

Koeman did not want to blame any individuals following this latest setback but conceded his side switched off too easily for Valencia's goals.

"It was a difficult game. We fought back but have to be more focused," he told Movistar. "We had chances but weren't focused on some other actions, and the opponents defended well.

"We made more of an effort in the second half to win the game but didn't create as many chances as we wanted. It was an irregular game from us; we lost balls in areas that were dangerous.

"I don't think it was to do with an attitude problem. There was an irregularity to the whole game. We lost balls and doubted ourselves.

"We also know we have problems with set-pieces. You have to get above your opponent, but we have smaller players."

Barca had won their previous two matches, against Levante and Real Sociedad, but now face a massive battle in chasing down Atletico and the rest of the title challengers.

"We would have liked to have won all of the games," Koeman said. "The problem is not today's draw but that we lost four or five other games and that's why this draw seems worse.

"There are a lot of points left [to be won]. It's a very tough season. In two months, everything could be different. We have to fight to make up the points difference."

Koeman made one change from the 2-1 victory over Sociedad, bringing in Philippe Coutinho for Frenkie de Jong in what was an attack-minded starting line-up featuring Messi, Martin Braithwaite, Pedri, Antoine Griezmann and Coutinho.

Sergio Busquets, the sole holding midfielder, picked up a knock and was replaced by De Jong at half-time.

Explaining his team selection, Koeman said: "Frenkie had discomfort in training yesterday and we couldn't risk him from the beginning, according to the doctors.

"We had to leave him on the bench until the break. I changed things around and brought off Busquets, but not because he was having a bad game."

Messi's goal was his 643rd for Barcelona, taking him level with Santos great Pele for the number of goals scored for a single club.

The Argentina international managed 10 shots in total and had a penalty saved by Jaume Domenech, but he headed in from two yards in the aftermath to bring up his landmark goal.

"We know all about his impressive career," Koeman said. "It is another very good achievement."

However, Valencia head coach Javi Gracia questioned whether a penalty should have been awarded for Jose Gaya's perceived push on Griezmann with Valencia a goal ahead at the time.

The referee Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez initially showed Gaya a red card before downgrading that to a yellow after checking the pitchside monitor, but Gracia feels the spot-kick should also have been rescinded at a pivotal moment in a tight game.

"Justice does not exist in football," he said. "It is always difficult to assess the referee's performance. The goal just before half-time did us a lot of damage. 

"But the team's personality was clear to see again. I am proud of my players."

Lionel Messi equalled Pele's one-club goals record but it was not enough for Barcelona as they were held to a 2-2 draw by Valencia's in Saturday's entertaining LaLiga clash.

The superstar forward notched his 643rd goal for the Catalan giants on the brink of half-time, scoring in the aftermath of having a penalty saved by Jaume Domenech.

That milestone goal cancelled out Mouctar Diakhaby's deserved opener for Valencia, and Ronald Araujo then put the hosts in front with an acrobatic strike - his first Barcelona goal at senior level.

But Barca could not hold on for a third straight league win - and a fifth in a row at Camp Nou - as Maxi Gomez prodded in 21 minutes from time to inflict another title blow on Ronald Koeman's men.

Koeman named an attack-minded line-up that contained just one holding midfielder and Barca were regularly caught out at the back, Marc-Andre ter Stegen bailing his side out with a good save to deny Carlos Soler.

Valencia were winless in four league games prior to this clash and were taken to extra time by lower-league side Terrassa in the Copa del Rey in midweek, but they opened the scoring in Catalonia through Diakhaby's free header in the 29th minute from a Soler corner.

Antoine Griezmann then could not beat Domenech at the end of a swift counter and Martin Braithwaite had a strong penalty appeal turned down, while Ter Stegen produced a superb stop to keep out Gomez in an end-to-end contest.

Barca were given a route back into the game when Jose Gaya was adjudged to have nudged Griezmann in the back, the decision allowed to stand following a lengthy VAR check, though Gaya's red card was reduced to a yellow on second viewing.

Messi's spot-kick was pushed to one side by Domenech, only for Jordi Alba to send a deflected cross towards the back post for the Argentina international to nod over the line from two yards for his landmark goal.

Barca were given another scare early in the second half when Denis Cheryshev sliced wide from a glorious position and, three minutes later, Araujo sent a delightful half-volley away from Domenech.

But the visitors responded through Gomez, who got in front of Oscar Mingueza to poke in Gaya's left-sided cross, and they held on for a share of the spoils - Philippe Coutinho's off-target curler the closest Barca went to winning the game late on.

Paul Pogba could reportedly leave Manchester United as early as next month, while Zinedine Zidane is said to be eyeing a Real Madrid exit.

Pogba's future has again become a talking point at United after his agent, Mino Raiola, said the midfielder wanted to leave.

And the Premier League giants may be ready to make it happen.

 

TOP STORY – MAN UTD WANT TO SELL POGBA IN JANUARY

Manchester United want to sell Pogba in January after Raiola's latest outburst, according to The Sun.

It comes after ESPN reported the Premier League giants doubted whether Juventus or Real Madrid – the clubs the France international has been most heavily linked to – could afford the 27-year-old.

Pogba came off the bench as United were knocked out of the Champions League with a 3-2 loss to RB Leipzig on Tuesday.

 

ROUND-UP

- Real Madrid managed to reach the last 16 to ease the pressure on head coach Zidane. However, Diario Gol reports Zidane has made it clear to Madrid president Florentino Perez he is likely to leave at the end of the season, regardless of what happens. The report says Zidane was promised the signings of Pogba, Liverpool star Sadio Mane and Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga.

- Under pressure, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's future at Manchester United is uncertain. But the Daily Mail reports United will back the manager despite their Champions League exit and the availability of Mauricio Pochettino. Meanwhile, Sky Sports says United are interested in Atletico Madrid right-back Kieran Trippier.

- David Alaba seems certain to leave Bayern Munich at the end of his contract after the 2020-21 season. Bild reports Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain are on the shortlist of destinations for the defender.

- Could Frenkie de Jong leave Barcelona after just two seasons at the club? Mundo Deportivo reports Bayern Munich are in contact with the midfielder's agent regarding a possible move. De Jong joined Barca from Ajax for a reported initial fee of €75million in 2019, and he re-signed with the club in October until 2026.

- Eric Garcia has been heavily linked with a move to Barcelona, but it seems there is also interest from elsewhere. The Sun reports Arsenal are tracking the defender, who is out of contract at Manchester City at the end of the season.

- Arsenal and Wolves are monitoring Maxi Gomez's situation at Valencia, according to the Daily Mail, which says Valencia could sell the forward in January or at season's end as they look to raise funds.

Diego Simeone lauded Thomas Lemar for an improved performance in Atletico Madrid's win at Valencia, despite the winger again failing to contribute to a goal. 

Lemar, signed from Monaco in 2018, has not scored or provided an assist in LaLiga since his debut campaign, which yielded three goals and three assists. 

After drawing a blank in the previous season, 2020-21 is proving similarly tricky for the France international. 

However, there were signs of life in the 1-0 success on Saturday. Lemar had mustered just a single shot in the league so far this season but let fly on four occasions, drawing two superb saves from Jaume Domenech, and created three chances - more than doubling his tally for the campaign. 

Lemar was still substituted 25 minutes from time, before Toni Lato's own goal turned the game decisively in Atleti's favour, but Simeone was encouraged by what he saw. 

"He played very well, believe me," Simeone said. "We do not have players who have his drive and shooting ability. 

"The talk fades when we don't see him so often, but hopefully we can give him the confidence he needs because he can do us a lot of good." 

Lemar was replaced by ex-Valencia midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia, by which point Simeone had already called on fellow substitutes Joao Felix and Yannick Carrasco, each rested before a midweek Champions League match with Bayern Munich. 

"They have known me for a long time; the game is 90 minutes and I have five changes," the coach said, explaining his selection. "The squad gives me the possibility to give everyone the best minutes. 

"I am very happy with Lemar, who has not been like today for a long time."

Domenech has now made 40 saves this season, the most in LaLiga, with five of those coming against Atleti, who dominated 67 per cent of possession. 

"The standout player for our rivals was the goalkeeper and that says a lot," Simeone said. "There were shots from [Marcos] Llorente, Lemar and [Angel] Correa. He made two or three impressive saves. 

"The team needs to keep trying to create chances and, once we get them, being more forceful. 

"We felt very good, we were able to play for a long time in the opponent's territory and we were close to the goal until it came and the space changed a bit. 

"Winning in Valencia is not easy; they came from playing a good game against Madrid and recovered from 2-0 down against Alaves. They were well organised." 

Atleti - who have moved level on points with table-topping Real Sociedad – will be boosted further when Luis Suarez returns after his coronavirus diagnosis. 

"The doctor will let us know [when Suarez can return]," Simeone added. "He is fine, I have spoken a lot of times to see how he felt and he is very excited to return. 

"His presence in the dressing room gives us something and I hope he returns in the best way. The team needs it." 

Toni Lato's unfortunate own goal 11 minutes from time gave Atletico Madrid a hard-fought 1-0 win at Valencia on Saturday. 

Atleti dominated throughout yet struggled to create opportunities in the second half after Jaume Domenech had stood tall in the Valencia goal prior to the break. 

After following up last week's victory over Barcelona - the first in LaLiga during Diego Simeone's tenure - with a goalless Champions League draw against Lokomotiv Moscow, the visitors looked set to suffer further frustration. 

However, substitute Yannick Carrasco's low cross bounced off Lato's knee and into the net to finally beat Domenech and take Atleti level on points with Real Sociedad at the summit.

The highlights of the first half were superb stretching saves at either end, Valencia captain Domenech punching the air in delight after getting down to his right to expertly repel Thomas Lemar's deflected 13th-minute drive. 
 
Jan Oblak had to be alert to touch Uros Racic's awkward half-volley - seemingly a mishit cross - onto the post, before Domenech was again tested by Lemar, parrying a precise effort away from the same corner as his earlier attempt. 
 
Atleti dominated after the restart, hogging more than 70 per cent of the possession until late in proceedings while facing only a single shot, though they scarcely threatened and needed a lucky bounce to snatch the points. 
 
Carrasco advanced down Atleti's left and sent in a low ball that evaded Domenech, as well as two tussling players from either side, catching Lato unaware as the ball skipped up off his leg and in. 

Manchester City are preparing long-term plans for Lionel Messi.

Messi, 33, is coming out of contract at Barcelona at the end of the season and is linked with a move, having sensationally requested a transfer ahead of 2020-21.

Strongly linked with Messi, City are making long-term plans for the Argentina star.

 

TOP STORY – MAN CITY PREPARE 10-YEAR PLAN FOR MESSI

Manchester City are preparing a 10-year plan for Barcelona star Messi, according to The Times.

The report says the Premier League club are expected to launch another attempt to sign the superstar at the beginning of 2021 and will offer him opportunities with the City Football Group (CFG) after he plays for City.

Messi has scored six goals in 11 games for Barcelona this season.

ROUND-UP

- Amid an injury crisis in defence, Barcelona's priorities have changed. Goal reports the LaLiga giants are focusing on Manchester City defender Eric Garcia and not Lyon star Memphis Depay, following the knee injury suffered by Gerard Pique.

- Thiago Silva has made quite an impression at Chelsea. The defender signed a one-year deal ahead of this season and Tuttomercatoweb reports there have already been initial contacts to extend his contract until 2022.

- The news is a little different for Jerome Boateng. Sport Bild reports Bayern Munich have already decided not to extend the defender's contract, which expires at the end of the season.

- Valencia's 17-year-old midfielder Yunus Musah appears to be catching the eye. 90min reports Arsenal are among the Premier League sides monitoring the teenager. The two-time United States international came through Arsenal's academy before joining Valencia in 2019.

Atletico Madrid have been paired with fourth-tier side Cardassar in the first round of the Copa del Rey, though Real Madrid and Barcelona are two of four LaLiga clubs missing.

The draw took place in La Cartuja, the Olympic stadium in Seville that will host the final next April, and is organised so that all LaLiga clubs avoid each other and are instead drawn with teams from the lower reaches of the Spanish football pyramid.

Atletico are the only one of the traditional 'big three' involved and face a trip to Tercera Division side Cardassar, who are from a small town on the island of Mallorca.

Sevilla, Spain's fourth Champions League representative this term, will stay in Andalusia when they go to Ciudad de Lucena and Valencia have been drawn against Catalonian team Terrassa.

Ties will take place on December 16 between the 112 clubs involved at this stage.

Madrid, Barca and 2019-20 Copa finalists Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao have byes to the third round due to their participation in the expanded Supercopa.

Athletic and La Real were unable to play their historic all-Basque final earlier this year as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the match postponed indefinitely at the time.

Recent media reports suggest the match is due to be rearranged for April 4, 2021, two weeks prior to the 2020-21 final.

Valencia have announced the death of club icon Juan Cruz Sol at the age of 73.

Sol played close to 400 games across two spells with Valencia between 1965 and 1981 and has more recently been a club ambassador and a member of the board of directors.

Valencia confirmed the news on their official website on Tuesday and said in a statement: "Juan Cruz Sol leaves behind an indelible mark on Valencia's history, and will be much missed by all who knew him.

"The club offer our deepest condolences to his family and friends. Rest in peace."

During his 12 years with Valencia, Sol won the European Cup Winners' Cup, European Super Cup, one Spanish top-flight title and the Spanish Cup.

He also spent five seasons with Real Madrid, winning four league titles, and was capped 28 times by Spain in the 1970s.

A statement from Los Blancos read: "Real Madrid would like to send their condolences and warmest regards to his wife Paola and his two daughters, to all his relatives and loved ones, as well as to Valencia C.F., the club where he was the social ambassador in the board of directors, and to all their fans."

Spain defender Hector Bellerin struggled to accept being out of international football for such a long time.

The Arsenal right-back was called up to Spain's squad for the first time in four years after Sevilla's Jesus Navas was ruled out through injury.

He won the last of his three caps for La Roja in a friendly against Georgia in July 2016 and, although he made Spain's squad for Euro 2016, he did not feature at the tournament.

Bellerin, however, was given a recall by coach Luis Enrique for his side's friendly with the Netherlands plus the Nations League fixtures against Switzerland and Germany.

The 25-year-old has been one of Arsenal's most consistent performers this season and played every minute of their eight Premier League games.

He has made 12 interceptions and eight tackles with a success rate of 88 per cent in those matches, helping the Gunners to keep two clean sheets.

"Yes, I am so happy getting back home. It has been almost five years since the last time, so I am very happy," Bellerin said in an interview with the Royal Spanish Football Federation.

"They have been tough years, and they always are when you cannot join the national team, but I am very proud and happy now. I can't wait to start."

Another player thrilled to be recalled by Luis Enrique after a break is Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke, who last featured for Spain just over two years ago.

Koke, 28, has not featured for Spain since a 4-1 friendly defeat of Wales in October 2018.

"I am very happy to be here again with the national team," Koke explained.

"It has been a long time, but I do have the same excitement that I had on my first day and I am looking forward to helping the team win the games."

Spain are top of Nations League Group A4 with seven points but saw their 13-game unbeaten run (W10 D3) in competitive matches ended last time out with a surprise 1-0 loss to Ukraine.

Left-back Jose Luis Gaya has warned his team-mates not to let any complacency seep into their forthcoming performances.

"It is true we are still first, and that gives us a little advantage. But we know how football is and everything can happen," added the Valencia defender.

"We need to try on winning all the games, that's what this jersey demands.

"Therefore, we cannot get relaxed and we have to face two official games plus the friendly one as they were finals."

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