Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has denied the club hired a social media contractor in order to discredit the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Pep Guardiola.

Spanish radio network Cadena SER reported on Monday that an independent social media company was contracted by Barca to boost the public profile of the current board of directors.

The reports also stated the company was tasked with undermining individuals with strong links to the club, including current stars Messi and Pique, former coach Guardiola and midfield icon Xavi.

Following a strong statement of denial on Monday, Bartomeu, while acknowledging Barca had hired I3 Ventures – the company in question – has reiterated the club's stance.

"I want to make clear, for the [Barca] members, and everyone, because I have heard different versions," Bartomeu said at the XIV Vazquez Montalban International Journalism Awards.

"First of all, I have to say that Barcelona haven't hired any service to discredit anyone. Neither players, nor the executives, ex-presidents. That is totally false.

"So we will defend ourselves where necessary regarding this subject, by all means, and in front of anyone who accuses us of doing this. I repeat again, it is false that Barcelona, in any case, has hired no one to discredit anyone."

However, with I3 Ventures connected to one of the accounts named in the reports – Respeto y Deporte (Respect and Sport) – Bartomeu confirmed Barca have ended their relationship with the contractor.

"It is true that at the end of 2017, Barcelona hired a service to monitor different areas of the club in the social media, as the major of the clubs have," he added.

"After the confirmation that one of the accounts linked to one of this company's suppliers have made inappropriate commentaries about people related to our organisation, I have given instructions personally to terminate the contract with this company.

"I want to make something clear. Regarding to the question that "if we have ordered anyone to monitor the social media", the answer is yes and we will still do it. 

"It is the responsibility of this club to know what is going on and what it is being said around the world, always to preserve Barcelona.

"Regarding to the question "If we have ordered to discredit people or institutions through social media" the answer is no and we will persecute everyone who accuses us of it."

Barcelona have denied allegations they hired a company to "damage the image" of people associated with the club by spreading negative messages on social media platforms.

Spanish radio network Cadena SER on Monday published a story claiming Barca had been working with a company to produce online content through unofficial accounts aimed at protecting president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the board.

Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Carles Puyol and former president Joan Laporta were said to have been the subjects of negative posts, while current players Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique were also targeted, according to the report.

But Barca are adamant the claims are false, insisting I3 Ventures – the company they have worked with – is not behind the accounts in question.

A club statement read: "With regards to information published today about the contracting of a company dedicated to creating opinion on social media with a view to damaging the image of third parties related directly or indirectly with the club, Barcelona: 

"1.- Roundly deny any relationship, and furthermore, the contracting of services linked to social media accounts that have broadcast negative or disparaging messages related to any person, entity or organisation that may be, or have been, related to the club. 

"2.- I3 Ventures, a service provider to the club, has no relationship with the accounts mentioned and, if any relationship was to come to light, the club would immediately end their contractual agreement and bring about any necessary legal action to defend their interests. 

"3.- As such, Barcelona confirm that it has services contracted relating to the monitoring of social media with the aim of analysing both positive and negative messages about the organisation itself. 

"4.- With the contracting of these services, the club is attempting to look after and preserve its reputation as well those of people related to the club (sponsors, players, board members, members, supporters' club members...), as far as the protection of this reputation is a fundamental element and responsibility for those who work for the organisation. 

"5.- The club demands an immediate rectification of the information published and reserves the right to exercise legal action against those who continue to implicate the club in such practices."

Barcelona have denied allegations they hired a company to "damage the image" of people associated with the club by spreading negative messages on social media platforms.

Spanish radio network Cadena SER on Monday published a story claiming Barca had been working with a company to produce online content through unofficial accounts aimed at protecting president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the board.

Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Carles Puyol and former president Joan Laporta were said to have been the subjects of negative posts, while current players Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique were also targeted, according to the report.

But Barca are adamant the claims are false, insisting I3 Ventures – the company they have worked with – is not behind the accounts in question.

A club statement read: "With regards to information published today about the contracting of a company dedicated to creating opinion on social media with a view to damaging the image of third parties related directly or indirectly with the club, Barcelona: 

"1.- Roundly deny any relationship, and furthermore, the contracting of services linked to social media accounts that have broadcast negative or disparaging messages related to any person, entity or organisation that may be, or have been, related to the club. 

"2.- I3 Ventures, a service provider to the club, has no relationship with the accounts mentioned and, if any relationship was to come to light, the club would immediately end their contractual agreement and bring about any necessary legal action to defend their interests. 

"3.- As such, Barcelona confirm that it has services contracted relating to the monitoring of social media with the aim of analysing both positive and negative messages about the organisation itself. 

"4.- With the contracting of these services, the club is attempting to look after and preserve its reputation as well those of people related to the club (sponsors, players, board members, members, supporters' club members...), as far as the protection of this reputation is a fundamental element and responsibility for those who work for the organisation. 

"5.- The club demands an immediate rectification of the information published and reserves the right to exercise legal action against those who continue to implicate the club in such practices."

Gerard Pique said Barcelona's dressing room was united despite the LaLiga champions suffering a crushing blow in an already troubling week, eliminated by Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey.

A 1-0 defeat to Athletic saw Barcelona knocked out of the Copa in the quarter-finals on Thursday, with that familiar route to silverware now cut off to the 30-time winners.

The setback followed criticism from director of football Eric Abidal, who questioned the team's effort under former head coach Ernesto Valverde, which led to a rebuke from star man and captain Lionel Messi.

"It's not time to air the dirty washing. The dressing room is fully united," Barca defender Pique told reporters. "Elimination is a big blow but we said in the dressing room that we've taken a step forward and played well, despite all the noise that's been generated."

He added, according to several Spanish newspapers: "We have to focus on playing and winning. We have to return to winning ways. The players have the ability to keep winning and we are working on that every day, finding a better feel for the game."

With LaLiga and the Champions League still in their sights, Pique said of Barcelona, who are three points behind Real Madrid: "There is enough confidence and talent to be able to win the two remaining titles."

Pique hobbled off in the second half in Bilbao with what initially appeared to be a groin injury, but he said the blow was to his adductor and "not serious".

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu said Barcelona looked to be on the right track, after a match they could easily have won.

Messi and Antoine Griezmann missed clear chances before Inaki Williams headed the winner deep in second-half stoppage time.

"The first thing is to congratulate Athletic, who will be in the semi-finals, but I also thank the Barca fans who have come and I also congratulate the Barca players because they fought, dominated and played well. [Athletic] have only had one chance and they scored," Bartomeu told Barca TV.

He said that he appreciated Barcelona's "performance and ambition".

"The ambition and the attitude that I saw on the pitch encourages me with a view to LaLiga and the Champions League, so successes can come," Bartomeu added.

"I repeat that we had clear occasions, such as those of Griezmann and Messi, and we dominated. Now we focus on LaLiga and the Champions League, but I want to emphasise the ambition, the attitude and the work done. We deserved to go through."

Barca midfielder Sergio Busquets said, according to AS: "It is a sad day for everyone. We have two competitions that we have to keep fighting in. This does not stop, we have to continue, we have done things well and we have had the game quite under control. In an isolated play at the end we are out of the Copa."

Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique have all been left out of Barcelona's trip to Ibiza in the Copa del Rey.

The trio are being rested for the round-of-32 clash against the third-tier side.

Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele remain unavailable due to injury, although the former has begun the next stage of his treatment process in Catalonia as he recovers from meniscus damage.

Quique Setien has called up youngsters Carles Perez, Riqui Puig, Abel Ruiz and Chumi to the 18-man squad, alongside rising star Ansu Fati.

Barca face a potentially difficult LaLiga trip to Valencia just three days after the Ibiza clash.

A frustrated Sergio Busquets hit out at the inconsistency of referee Javier Alberola Rojas and questioned why Barcelona did not benefit from a VAR review, after they were denied an injury-time penalty in a thrilling 2-2 draw at Real Sociedad.

Fourth-placed Sociedad were good value for their point against the reigning LaLiga champions, which was earned through Alexander Isak's 62nd-minute strike after Barca had come from a goal down to lead.

However, the visitors felt they should have had a late spot-kick when Gerard Pique claimed his shirt had been pulled by Diego Llorente as the pair fell to the ground in the Sociedad box.

Barca's frustrations were heightened by the fact they had fallen behind to a Mikel Oyarzabal penalty, awarded when Busquets was ruled to have tugged the jersey of Llorente.

"If you set the bar so low for the first penalty, you have to give so many more penalties," insisted Busquets.

"VAR would have to have intervened in that final play. The penalty on Pique is so clear.

"I think the referee saw it, but he didn't want to blow the whistle. I don't know why VAR didn't intervene. I would like to know their explanation, but it's not going to happen."

Busquets was able to speak more positively about Antoine Griezmann, who marked his latest return to his first professional club with Barca's first goal, courtesy of a delightful chipped finish.

"We knew it was special for Antoine, because of his past," added Busquets. "He did not want to celebrate the goal, which is respectable, but for us that goal, and his work as usual, has been very good for us."

Griezmann said: "I will never celebrate a goal against Real. I have a lot of respect for everything they gave me."

Ernesto Valverde passed up the opportunity to berate referee Javier Alberola Rojas after two penalty decisions went against Barcelona in their 2-2 draw at Real Sociedad.

Barca were denied three points in the Basque Country on Saturday, having been outplayed for long periods by a Sociedad side for whom Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard impressed.

However, LaLiga's reigning champions felt they should have been awarded an injury-time penalty when Gerard Pique and Diego Llorente tumbled to the ground contesting a Luis Suarez cross.

Barcelona's frustrations were heightened by the fact Sociedad had taken the lead from a spot-kick of their own after 12 minutes, when Sergio Busquets was penalised for tugging Llorente's shirt in circumstances not dissimilar to those involving Pique at the end of the match.

Yet while sections of the Spanish media bemoaned the consistency of the officials, Valverde was more measured in his post-match comments.

"From the bench you see the game with the shirt of your team on," said the Barca boss.

"The penalty to Pique? I have not seen it repeated but I will say that it is a penalty and that the Busquets one was not. I guess the coach of la Real will say the opposite."

Barcelona's failure to win means Real Madrid can move two points clear at the top of the table by beating Valencia ahead of Wednesday's Clasico at Camp Nou.

Yet Valverde highlighted the fact his side had faced a stiff opponent in fourth-placed Sociedad, adding: "We had a great team in front of us that is having a great season. The game was very intense in every way."

The 55-year-old also firmly rejected suggestions his second-half changes, which saw Busquets, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic withdrawn, had been made with the Clasico in mind.

"What do you think? We are dying here, on the bench, and are we going to think about the Clasico? You think about what you have in front of you," Valverde stated.

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique denied his Davis Cup commitments are a distraction and has demanded respect from his critics.

The 32-year-old has spent a large part of the week travelling to Madrid due to the involvement of his company Kosmos in the revamped international tennis team event.

Head coach Ernesto Valverde gave Pique permission to make the trips to the Spanish capital, but he publicly warned the centre-back he would not play against Leganes on Saturday if his focus was not on Barcelona.

After playing a full part in Barca's 2-1 win at Estadio Municipal de Butarque, Pique explained his extra-curricular activities have had no impact on his performances on the field.

"I had friendly talks with [Valverde] this week," Pique told reporters. "He asked me what the plans for this week were and how we were going to do it.

"The relationship between me and him is good and we get along well. We talk every week and everything with him and the club is going well.

"It is more about the noise from the outside, which centres around whether I'm in Madrid, or if I have dinner here or there. It is all part of the circus and part of my job, but I try to do my best.

"In the end, they are 40-minute trips. I think we give a lot of attention to who I am and who I represent, but I try to make things as simple as possible. People can opine whatever they want, but respect me."

Pique, who planned to stay in Madrid to watch the semi-finals of the Davis Cup, talked up the importance of his side's comeback against Leganes.

Youssef En-Nesyri gave bottom side Leganes an early lead, but Luis Suarez and substitute Arturo Vidal hit back in the second half for Barcelona, who continue to jostle with Real Madrid for the LaLiga ascendancy.

"It was important for the team to continue winning in order to gain confidence," Pique said.

"If at the beginning of the season you told us we would be the leaders in LaLiga and our Champions League group, we would have taken it.

"In terms of the game, we know we can improve but the most important thing is to win games."

Luis Suarez says when Gerard Pique speaks "sometimes you have to take everything with tweezers" after the defender said Barcelona stars were ready to alter their salaries to accommodate the return of Neymar.

Brazil star Neymar was heavily linked with a switch back to Camp Nou just two seasons after making a record-breaking €222million move to Paris Saint-Germain.

However, Barca were unable to strike an agreement with PSG despite the best efforts of LaLiga's champions.

Centre-back Pique said last month: "We didn't stump up money.

"What we said to the president was whether we could change our contracts because we knew there was a Financial Fair Play issue... so we said to the president, rather than earn something in year one, we could earn it in year two or three or four."

Star forward Suarez, who formed a devastating trio with Lionel Messi and Neymar at Barca, insists the players had no involvement with the talks and believes not everything Pique said should be taken at face value.

"When Geri speaks, sometimes you have to take everything with tweezers," Uruguayan Suarez told Sport.

"He has a lot of work and a lot of experience in making statements. In this case he knows and is aware that the players were totally out in the case of Ney.

"We were willing to welcome him or any player who wants to come, but always oblivious to the case."

Suarez also insisted everything is well with close-season signing Antoine Griezmann and his integration with Barcelona's squad.

It was reported captain Messi objected to the signing of the former Atletico Madrid forward due to his desire for Neymar to return, although the Argentinian branded such suggestions as a "lie".

Suarez said: "[His integration has been] spectacular, sometimes things are misunderstood. Both Leo and I and Geri himself welcomed him a year earlier, said he was a great player and was one of the best in the world.

"He came from being world champion and we already praised him. Then we didn't know what was going to happen to him, we weren't sure he was coming this year.

"We treat him as one more. It is also true that some have more affinity with some partners than others; in his case he gets along very well with the French players."

Gerard Pique has welcomed Spain's reappointment of Luis Enrique but admitted to being surprised at Roberto Moreno's abrupt departure.

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) confirmed the unexpected coaching change on Tuesday, bringing an end to Moreno's brief stint in charge of the 2010 World Cup winners.

Moreno took over in a caretaker capacity in March and assumed the head coach role on a full-time basis in June.

Luis Enrique had stepped down as his young daughter, Xana, had developed bone cancer. She died in August.

His former assistant, Moreno, won seven and drew two of the nine matches he oversaw in total, leading to a sense of shock when it became evident that Monday's Euro 2020 qualifier against Romania was to be his last game.

"In truth it is a little surprising, we all got a little surprise," Barca defender Pique told Mundo Deportivo.

"I'm not there, I haven't talked to my [Barcelona] team-mates because they played on Monday and they didn't train [Tuesday]."

"I am very happy that Luis Enrique returns to training, that is the best news of all," he continued.

"Regarding the relationship between Luis Enrique and Robert Moreno, I have no idea what happened."

Pique has been out of the Spain side since retiring from international football following the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

He remains a regular starter at club level and expects to stay at Camp Nou until the end of his distinguished career, which could yet end before his contract expires in 2022.

"I have always said my last team will be Barca," said the 32-year-old.

"I have absolutely no intention of wearing any other shirt because... I have been a 'Cule' all my life. For me, being at Barca is the biggest dream of all.

"My intention is to get to 2022, but I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know if I'm going to be able to do it.

"If I see that I lose importance or see that I am not at the [required] level, I have no problem leaving earlier.

"I don't think it will happen because I know myself and I am able to endure until 2022, but you never know."

Gerard Pique concedes Barcelona can improve but claims the level of criticism they have received this season has been unfair.

Barca lead LaLiga after 12 games despite having suffered three defeats, two more than title rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

Ernesto Valverde's men returned to form ahead of the international break with a 4-1 win over Celta Vigo, which followed a 3-1 loss at Levante and goalless Champions League draw with Slavia Prague.

While some have taken issue with results and performances alike, centre-back Pique feels the assessments have been unjust.

"We have won the last two league titles, we are the leaders in LaLiga and in the Champions League and the criticisms we are receiving are excessive," Pique told radio programme El Partidazo de COPE.

"Can we play better? Of course, but there is still a lot of the season left.

"Barca is the least result-focused team in the world. It's not enough to win, the fans have made that clear. We have to win playing well and it's true that right now we are not at the level that we should be."

Lionel Messi's hat-trick powered the Spanish champions to last weekend's victory, with Sergio Busquets adding the fourth.

Antoine Griezmann failed to find the net before being replaced and has now gone five club games without a goal.

Before the Celta match, Barca boss Valverde suggested the France international is still adjusting to a new playing style.

Pique expects Griezmann, formerly the star of Diego Simeone's Atletico side, will eventually get to grips with being a supporting cast member.

"He always succeeded with Real Sociedad and Atletico, but it is true that he has come to a team, Barca, which does not play for him," he said.

"In that sense, he has to know how to find his space, but he will find it because he has a lot of talent.

"I particularly value how much he helps us in defensive tasks."

Sergio Ramos has reiterated his desire to represent Spain at the 2020 Olympic Games.

Captain for club and country, Real Madrid defender Ramos is Spain's most-capped player, with 168 appearances on the international stage. 

He has never participated at the Olympics, however, where the football tournament is comprised of under-23 squads allowed to select three over-aged players.

Ramos' long-time international centre-back partner Gerard Pique has also voiced his desire to take part at Tokyo 2020, despite having retired from duty with Spain after the 2018 World Cup

"It makes me excited to always represent Spain. Like Pique, all the players who could play an Olympic Games with Spain would do it," Ramos told a news conference ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifier against Malta – Robert Moreno's side already assured of their place at the finals.

"First there is a Euro and then we will see, but I am excited because it is something I have never experienced."

Another of Ramos' colleagues during a glorious era with Spain, David Villa, announced this week that he will retire in January, concluding a career in which he became his country's all-time record goalscorer. 

"He is a legend, one of the best players in Spain and the world," Ramos said of the former Valencia and Barcelona forward, who was a key member of Spain's triumphant campaigns at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.

"I congratulate him on his career and for everything he has given for Spain and the teams in which he has played."

Ramos will turn 34 in March but is not considering hanging up his boots just yet. 

In fact, he has designs on taking one more shot at World Cup glory in 2022.

"As long as football allows me and I am physically well and looking forward, I will not anticipate [my retirement]," he added.

"We have a wonderful Euro ahead of us. I would like to reach the World Cup. I want to win again with Spain."

Barcelona claimed a 2-0 win at third-tier side Cartagena on Wednesday in a match raising money for those affected by flooding in Murcia earlier this year.

A year's worth of rain fell in 24 hours back in September, causing significant damage to farmland, properties and facilities in the south-eastern region.

The charity fundraiser was well attended for the visit of Barca, who named a strong starting XI that included Neto, Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto, Junior Firpo and Ousmane Dembele.

Former Spain international Pique was withdrawn with the game still level in the 37th minute, while Dembele followed at half-time.

Despite the presence of first-team regulars, it was highly rated 20-year-old midfielder Riqui Puig who caught the eye most, impressing with his vision, close control and positive approach. 

Puig played a role in the opening goal just past the hour, prodding the ball to Carles Perez on the edge of the box after being crowded out and the forward lashed home.

Alejandro Marques wrapped things up late on, turning home Sergio Akieme's low cross.

Gerard Pique insists Barcelona stars Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann have a perfectly normal relationship.

Earlier this month, new signing Griezmann admitted to finding it "difficult" to connect with Barca's superstar captain as neither of them are naturally big talkers.

It had been rumoured Messi, who hoped for Neymar's return, objected to the club's pursuit of the France international.

Messi branded that a "lie" and insisted he has no problem with Griezmann, a claim supported by Pique.

The experienced centre-back told Spanish broadcaster Cadena SER the pair are on "very good" terms.

"Here, we magnify everything very much," Pique said.

"Leo and Grizi get along, the same as Leo and [Ousmane] Dembele get along, or Leo with Pedro or [David] Villa. It's good. With Luis [Suarez and Messi], they are almost like brothers.

"Just because he doesn't get along [with Griezmann] like he does with Luis doesn't mean they get along badly."

Messi and Suarez starred for Barca in their last outing, a comprehensive 5-1 win over Real Valladolid.

The Spanish champions sit top of LaLiga, a point ahead of Real Madrid, but there will no showdown between the bitter rivals until December 18 following the postponement of the season's first Clasico.

The decision to move the match, originally scheduled to be played at Camp Nou on October 26, was made amid civil unrest and protests in Catalonia.

Barcelona-born Pique believes that was a mistake.

"My opinion is that it was not necessary," he said.

"It magnified a problem that wasn't there. Espanyol played Villarreal that week and nothing happened. I think that for the league and for the clubs it was not the best.

"I think the league, as a competition, and the clubs have to take the bull by the horns and ensure that the show goes on."

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique revealed the team offered to change their salaries so Neymar could return to the LaLiga champions.

Neymar attempted to engineer a return to Barca during the previous transfer window, just two years after his world-record €222million transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

However, a deal did not materialise with PSG despite Barca's efforts to bring Brazil international star Neymar back to Camp Nou.

Pique said he and his team-mates tried to help Neymar return to the Spanish giants amid the constraints of Financial Fair Play, telling Cadena Ser program El Larguero: "We didn't stump up money.

"What we said to the president was whether we could change our contracts because we knew there was a Financial Fair Play issue... so we said to the president, rather than earn something in year one, we could earn it in year two or three or four.

"At the end of the day we want to go along with what the club is doing and if we can help the club, in this case avoiding a financial fair problem, we've got no problem in doing that.

"Rather than reducing our salary it was about finding a formula so that if the club wanted to sign Neymar they could. At the time they thought it was a good idea, but then other problems cropped up."

Asked if Neymar could come back to Barca, Pique added: "In football anything can happen and every year just makes that clearer. We told Neymar, 'you're going to a golden prison'. But in football things can happen and you find the door open."

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