Diego Simeone suggested it would be difficult for any team not to be hampered by the loss of Lionel Messi, ahead of Atletico Madrid's clash with Barcelona.

LaLiga leaders Barca travel to the Spanish capital on Sunday in the headline fixture of the weekend.

Barca struggled last season under Ronald Koeman in the wake of Messi's departure to Paris Saint-Germain, though recovered under Xavi to finish second in LaLiga.

The Blaugrana are well set for a title challenge this term, with Robert Lewandowski having hit the ground running, but they have faltered in Europe, crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage for a second straight season.

Asked if Barca were a less-threatening side without Messi, Simeone told reporters: "Where Messi is will always be decisive, be it in the national team, in his current team or in Barcelona. 

"With a player of Leo's characteristics there is a better chance of winning."

Simeone compared Messi's influence on teams to that of the late Diego Maradona, who the Atletico coach played with at the 1994 World Cup.

"When I played the World Cup with Maradona, already a veteran, there was a feeling that it is difficult for us to lose, because we have the best," Simeone added.

"And if you have the best it is easier to win."

 

Simeone will be glad he no longer has to face Messi domestically, given the Barca great scored 26 goals in 30 LaLiga appearances against Atletico, who realistically need a victory on Sunday to keep any slim hopes of a title push alive.

"We face all the games and we want to see them as if it were a final," Simeone said.

"The next game in Almeria will be in the same and so on. There is no bigger game than the one you have to play [next].

"Barcelona are doing very well in the league, [have] a coach with clear ideas and they play very well."

Joao Felix's future appears up in the air, with Atleti willing to let the Portugal forward leave the club in January.

Asked if the Barca match provides a big stage for Joao Felix to impress on, Simeone elected not to focus on the individual.

"It is a good opportunity for the team," he said. "We continue to grow, improve as a team and capture what we want in the game."

Barcelona will face the lowest-ranked team left in the Copa del Rey after being drawn with Ceuta in the last 16.

Xavi's side will be huge favourites to reach the quarter-finals, with their next opponents propping up Group 1 of the Primera Division RFEF, Spain's third tier.

Nevertheless, Ceuta – who beat LaLiga's Elche in the round of 32 – will take encouragement from Barca's struggles in the last round ahead of welcoming the Catalans to Africa's north coast.

The top-flight leaders needed extra time to beat another third-tier side in Intercity, with Oriol Soldevila pegging them back three times to force extra time.

Ansu Fati's extra-time goal made it 4-3 and eventually sealed Barca's passage, but it was still alarmingly close to an upset for the Blaugrana.

The tie of the round will take place at Estadio de la Ceramica as Villarreal host Real Madrid.

Holders Real Betis were drawn at home to Osasuna, one of four all-LaLiga ties, while Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla were all paired with Segunda opposition.

Fixtures will take place across January 17, 18 and 19.

Copa del Rey draw in full:

Ceuta v Barcelona

Levante v Atletico Madrid

Sporting Gijon v Valencia

Deportivo Alaves v Sevilla

Real Betis v Osasuna

Villarreal v Real Madrid

Real Sociedad v Real Mallorca

Athletic Bilbao v Espanyol

Arsenal and Tottenham are reportedly trying to pry centre-back Evan Ndicka away from Eintracht Frankfurt this month.

Ndicka, 23, arrived at the Bundesliga club in 2018, racking up 162 appearances since. He has played every minute of their 15 Bundesliga fixtures this season, helping them to reach the German mid-season break in fourth position.

Standing at an imposing 192cm tall with pace to burn, he fits the bill as a centre-back who can handle the physical demands of the Premier League, and his impressive traits are exactly why Frankfurt have been desperate to retain his services.


TOP STORY – PREMIER LEAGUE RIVALS BATTLE IT OUT FOR EXCITING CENTRE-BACK

Currently in the final year of his five-year contract, this will be the last opportunity Frankfurt get to cash in on their young talent, and they reportedly see the writing on the wall despite their desire to extend Ndicka's stay.

According to German publication FR, Ndicka's agents have been reaching out to Europe's elite clubs including Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Barcelona, but are said to have driven some away with their lucrative contract demands.

Previous reporting from Football London has claimed Arsenal had agreed to personal terms with Ndicka for a free move before Frankfurt's most recent improved contract offer, while Tottenham remain in the hunt.

Interested parties prepared to wait another six months could scoop him up on a free, but a transfer fee in January with so little time remaining on his contract could end up surprisingly affordable.


ROUND-UP

Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea are all closely monitoring 19-year-old PAOK winger Giannis Konstantelias, who is believed to be worth in the range of £10million, per the Evening Standard.

– Foot Mercato is reporting Saudi Arabia side Al-Nassr are working on acquiring Eden Hazard to reunite him with former Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo.

– According to Sport, Juventus have enquired about 33-year-old Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba as he enters the final six months of his contract.

Napoli have submitted a €19m offer for 22-year-old Angers and Morocco midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, per Foot Mercato.

– Sport is reporting 28-year-old Barcelona forward Memphis Depay would like to return to former club Manchester United.

The 2022 World Cup was unique for many reasons.

It was the first World Cup to be played in the Middle East, and the first one to take place in the middle of the season, as far as Europe's top clubs are concerned.

One thing that did not change, of course, was players being able to use the tournament as a platform to show what they can do on the biggest stage, and perhaps get big moves on the back of it.

While Josko Gvardiol, Enzo Fernandez, Alexis Mac Allister and Jude Bellingham are among the players to possibly fall into that category, Antoine Griezmann is different.

Griezmann is not the youngster making his name, but he did shine in Qatar as, in the space of seven games, he arguably redefined his own position.

That is not to say Griezmann had not been impressive this season prior to the World Cup. Before the tournament he had directly contributed to 10 goals for Atletico Madrid, scoring five and creating as many.

Griezmann's form has come during a season in which he had to settle for a substitute role up until September 18, due to Atleti attempting to navigate a financial clause in their loan agreement with Barcelona, which would have kicked in had the 31-year-old played a certain amount of minutes.

Had that clause been activated, Atleti would have had to pay €40million to re-sign Griezmann. As it was, they paid under half of that to bring him back to the club permanently in October.

It's Barca up next for Atleti in the highlight fixture of this weekend's LaLiga matches. Going into that match, Griezmann is a player reimagined.

 

The creator in chief

Griezmann has returned from the World Cup with a vigour and verve to his play perhaps not seen since his prime years at Atleti back in 2017 to 2019.

His goal contributions stand at 13 (five more than any of his team-mates) after three assists across two appearances since Atleti's campaign restarted – one game in LaLiga and one in the Copa del Rey.

Griezmann leads the club's scoring charts along with Alvaro Morata while his tally of seven assists is four clear of next-best Joao Felix, who seems destined to leave the club this month. None of his team-mates come close to matching Griezmann's 42 chances created, and 35 of those have come from open play.

But it's Griezmann's positioning that is the truly interesting aspect of his fine form.

Didier Deschamps has often utilised Griezmann as a second striker in international football. That was the position he played in at Euro 2016, and during France's successful run at the 2018 World Cup.

Yet in Qatar, Griezmann was deployed as the most advanced of a midfield trio, and there he showed his ability to not only find space in the final third, but run games altogether.

 

Only Kylian Mbappe (49) was involved in more shot-ending attacking sequences for France at the tournament than Griezmann (30).

However, of Griezmann's 361 open-play touches, just 14 came in the opposition box, with the vast majority clustered in the middle of the park.

Not that it prevented Griezmann from wielding his influence. He provided three assists, leading the competition alongside Harry Kane, Bruno Fernandes, Ivan Perisic and Lionel Messi. Unlike all of those players, however, Griezmann's expected assists (xA) of 3.6 was actually slightly underperformed. Essentially, he was creating higher quality chances for those assists than his counterparts.

 

That quality was evidenced with a sublime cross into Olivier Giroud for France's second goal in the 2-1 quarter-final victory over England, having earlier teed up Aurelien Tchouameni's strike to move ahead of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in terms of the most assists for Les Bleus. Griezmann's 28 assists rank as the most by any France player for his country in the last 50 years.

Griezmann's 22 chances created were the most at the tournament, albeit only nine of those came from open play. When it came to creativity, Griezmann was at the top of his game.

From poacher to playmaker

It was certainly a case of picking up where he left off for Griezmann when Atleti took on Elche in LaLiga on December 29. Diego Simeone's side won 2-0, and Griezmann was superb.

He set up both goals and created four chances. No player attempted more passes in the opposition half (37), or played in more crosses (five).

Despite Atleti having lined up in a 3-4-3, with Griezmann nominally positioned on the right flank, his average position was just ahead of the halfway line.

It was a similar story against Real Oviedo on Wednesday in the Copa del Rey. While he was supposedly playing in a front two alongside Alvaro Morata, Griezmann's touches were centred around the halfway line, with only two coming in the opposition box.

Dovetailing with Morata in a forward line, or indeed playing as an inside forward in a 3-4-3, is in principle ideal for Griezmann to drop into a similar role as to the one he thrived in during the World Cup.

Barca best be wary

It would seem the two-man attack would provide the perfect platform for Griezmann to show what Barca never managed to unlock on a consistent basis during his two years at the club.

Not that his time at Barca was a complete failure. Griezmann scored 35 goals and assisted a further 16 across 102 appearances. But he looks like he has his mojo back now. In fact, no LaLiga player has assisted more goals in all competitions.

Morata should provide the pace and work rate to stretch Barca's backline, handing Griezmann the space to drop between the lines and pull the strings.

Griezmann is averaging 73.4 touches per 90 minutes for Atleti this term, but only 4.8 in the opposition's box. His role has been gradually developing over the course of the campaign and the World Cup proved just how effective he can be.

Barca twice gave away the lead against Intercity Sant Joan d'Alacant in their Copa del Rey tie, and as Inter and Bayern Munich displayed in the Champions League, the Blaugrana's defence can be got at, even if in LaLiga Xavi's side have conceded just six times.

If Griezmann, who at least might be easier to spot, what with his bright pink hair, can replicate the influence he had in Qatar, Barca will be hard-pressed to stop him.

Ousmane Dembele is "happy in Barcelona" and wants to stay, amid reports linking him with a move to Paris Saint-Germain in his native France.

Dembele has had a mixed time in LaLiga since arriving at Barca for big money from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, but the 25-year-old has enjoyed a productive spell since Xavi took charge last season.

He has been involved in more goals than any other Blaugrana player since Xavi became head coach in November 2021, scoring eight and providing 20 assists.

That includes six goals and seven assists in 22 games this season (17 starts), and Dembele also provided two assists in his seven appearances for France as they finished as runners-up at the World Cup in Qatar.

However, despite stories suggesting PSG could be in line to bring him to Ligue 1, the former Rennes winger told Belgian television station Eleven Sports he is content at Camp Nou.

"I signed a new contract at Barca four months ago and I'm happy here, I want to keep working and improving at Barcelona," he said. "I am good here, I am happy in Barcelona, I like my life here. The coach trusts me, and the board [trust me] too."

Dembele has just 18 months remaining on his contract, but Barca president Joan Laporta insisted on Thursday he is "not for sale", telling Sport: "If PSG come to sign him, we will tell them he is not for sale.

"He's one of the most important players that we have. He has extraordinary speed, he's a lightning bolt. Every time he gets the ball he upsets defences and yesterday [in the 4-3 Copa del Rey win against Intercity] he scored a great goal.

"He won't go for €70million euros or any amount."

Barcelona have been beaten without scoring a goal in their past two trips to Atletico Madrid and could find themselves off the top of LaLiga if they suffer more misery in the capital on Sunday.

A fiery 1-1 draw with Espanyol on New Year's Eve left Barca level on points with Real Madrid at the summit in what is shaping up to be an enthralling title race.

Xavi's side travel to the Metropolitano for their first LaLiga game of the year on the back of a Copa del Rey scare, avoiding an upset by beating third-tier Intercity 4-3 after extra time.

Fourth-placed Atleti have secured back-to-back 2-0 wins and will be looking for a third consecutive home victory over the Blaugrana in the top flight.

With Carlo Ancelotti's men travelling to Villarreal a day earlier, Barca may need a win against Atletico to go back to the top of the table and they will be without the suspended Robert Lewandowski.

Stats Perform pick out the standout Opta numbers to preview the big game.

Barca hoping for same story in New Year

This will be the fifth time Barca have faced Atleti in their first game of a calendar year.

If history is anything to go by, the Catalan giants could be heading home with all three points in the bank as they have not lost in all four of the previous such meetings.

Barca beat Atleti in their first league games in 1930, 1951 and 1989, with the other encounter ending in a draw.

If looking that far back is not for you, Barca have been in excellent recent form on the road – winning 12 of their past 14 away games in LaLiga, with just one defeat.


Griezmann to return to haunt Barca?

In-form forward Antoine Griezmann is set to face Barca for the first time since he made a permanent move from Camp Nou to Atleti in October.

The France international endured a disappointing spell with the Blaugrana, but is very much at home again under Diego Simeone.

After some outstanding World Cup displays in Qatar, Griezmann has provided three assists in two matches back on club duty – the latest being a sublime first-time cushioned pass to set up Marcos Llorente in the 2-0 Copa del Rey defeat of Real Oviedo on Wednesday.

A revitalised Griezmann has been involved in 10 LaLiga goals for the Rojiblancos this season – five goals and as many assists. That is three more than he managed from 29 appearances in the competition in the 2021-22 campaign.

 

Dembele delivering for Xavi

Ousmane Dembele continues to show why Barca were so eager to keep him after his contract expired at the end of last season.

The France winger scored his eighth goal of Xavi's reign in a thrilling cup tie against Intercity.

Dembele has racked up 20 assists since Xavi was appointed in November 2021, giving him the most goal involvements for Barca during the head coach's tenure.


Joao Felix catching the eye in shop window

Joao Felix continues to be linked with a move, Manchester United among the clubs linked with the wantaway Atletico forward.

He has clearly not been affected by uncertainty over his future, scoring in three consecutive LaLiga games for the first time during his Atleti career.

The Portugal international has found the back of the net four times in his past three LaLiga matches, while he also struck against Ghana in the World Cup.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta reiterated keeping Lionel Messi at the club in 2021 was impossible because the club was "in ruins" financially.

Having come through Barca's academy, Messi's departure ended a 21-year association and highlighted the seriousness of the club's economic issues.

Messi's contract expired at the end of the 2020-21 season, and although he technically became a free agent, it was widely assumed Barca would re-sign him to a new deal once room was made in the budget.

But Barca – whose debts were at €1.35billion in August 2021 – had their LaLiga salary cap slashed by €280million ahead of the 2021-22 campaign as a result of their financial problems.

As such, even with a 50 per cent wage reduction reportedly agreed, Barca still could not afford to sign Messi to a new deal, and Spanish employment law forbids employers decreasing wages beyond 50 per cent.

"I had to put Barca ahead of the best player in the history of football," Laporta told Cadena SER.

"In those moments of financial ruin I couldn't keep him. I think it was the best thing for the club."

Of course, Messi continues to be linked with a return to Barca with his Paris Saint-Germain contract set to expire at the end of the season.

Similarly, reports suggest Messi has already agreed an extension with PSG, the announcement simply delayed by his participation in – and time off after – the World Cup.

Laporta was not eager to anger PSG – with whom Barca share a frosty relationship – by speaking about Messi, though his regret about the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner not having a greater send-off might be interpreted by some as him hinting at a potential second chance.

"I prefer not to talk about Leo because he is a PSG player, as then [if I spoke about him] there are missiles that come from everywhere," he added. "We are focused on the players who are ours.

"Leo will always be part of our emblem, and I would like him to have a different ending to the one he had."

Barcelona president Joan Laporta believes a revamped version of the European Super League could launch as soon as 2025, without any Premier League clubs taking part.

Barca, along with Real Madrid and Juventus, remained committed to the Super League project in the aftermath of a failed launch in April 2021, though the other nine founding clubs quickly withdrew their support.

In October, it was revealed that plans were afoot to revive the competition, with A22 Sports Management chief executive Bernd Reichart promising an "open format" as he sought support for the proposal.

UEFA called the Super League's supporters "greedy" after meeting with Reichart the following month, while European Union Court of Justice [CJUE] advocate general Athanasios Rantos dealt a blow to the proposed competition by stating UEFA and FIFA could lawfully sanction participating clubs. 

However, Laporta remains optimistic regarding the Super League project, with the remaining clubs hopeful the CJUE will rule any UEFA sanctions are incompatible with EU competition law.

"In March or April we will have the CJUE ruling. It will be a very important sentence and I think it will benefit the clubs," Laporta told Cadena SER on Thursday.

"The Super League will be an open competition. I would not have entered this project if the competition was not open. 

"We want the governance to belong to the clubs. I hope that UEFA will occupy one more chair at the governance table. If the resolution is favourable, I think the Super League will be a reality in 2025."

All six of the Premier League clubs originally involved in the Super League – Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool – withdrew their support following a fierce public and media backlash to the plans in 2021.

Laporta does not expect any English sides to participate in the first edition of any future Super League, though he believes they will eventually join the competition if it succeeds.

"We will have a European competition that competes with the Premier League," he said. "I believe that the English teams will not enter at first. 

"We'd love for them to come in, but my opinion is that initially, they won't. I believe that everything will end with a merger later."

One feature of Laporta's tenure as Barca president has been his poor relationship with LaLiga president Javier Tebas, who he believes is not doing enough to ensure Spanish clubs can compete with their English counterparts.

"Our personal relationship has never been bad, but it has been tense. Tebas is a complicated person," he said. "He should be more concerned with recovering subscribers to football on television, increasing the income of Spanish football.

"We are defenders of financial control, but if you make a comparison between the Premier and the Spanish league... it is up to us to make them look at it."

Antonio Mateu Lahoz will not referee a LaLiga fixture this weekend after dishing out a flurry of cards in Barcelona's ill-tempered 1-1 draw with Espanyol last Saturday.

Lahoz was widely criticised for his performance in a fiery Catalan derby on New Year's Eve, having sent Jordi Alba and Vinicius Souza off and booked another 11 players along with Barca head coach Xavi.

Espanyol were perhaps fortunate to avoid going down to nine men in the aftermath of Souza's dismissal, with a VAR review saving Leandro Cabrera after he was initially shown a red card for an apparent stamp on Robert Lewandowski.

Having been dismissed for two bookable offences, Barcelona defender Alba said Lahoz had forgotten about his first yellow card when he issued a second for dissent.

Lahoz was in the thick of the action once again on Wednesday, sending Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli to the stands just 18 minutes into their 5-0 Copa del Rey win over Linares.

On Thursday, the Spanish Football Federation issued a list of refereeing appointments for the 16th round of fixtures of the LaLiga season, with Lahoz conspicuous by his absence.

Lahoz was described as "useless" by Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez after taking charge of the Albiceleste's World Cup quarter-final win against the Netherlands last month.

Lionel Messi also made his feelings on Lahoz's performance clear after the 45-year-old showed 15 yellow cards at Lusail Stadium, saying the official was "not up to it".

Robert Lewandowski will miss Barcelona's LaLiga trip to Atletico Madrid on Sunday after his three-game suspension was upheld by Spain's Sports Administrative Court.

The Poland striker was issued the extended ban for a gesture made towards referee Gil Manzano after being shown two yellow cards in November's 2-1 win at Osasuna.

Barcelona appealed the Spanish Football Federation's decision and Lewandowski was allowed to play in last week's 1-1 draw with Espanyol, much to the Periquitos' anger.

Head coach Xavi said on Tuesday he was hopeful the 34-year-old, who has 18 goals in 20 games this season, would also be eligible for the showdown with Atletico.

However, it was confirmed on Wednesday that Barca were unsuccessful with their latest appeal, meaning Lewandowski will miss the match at Estadio Metropolitano.

The ban does not cover Copa del Rey or Supercopa de Espana ties, so Lewandowski will also sit out the LaLiga meetings with Getafe and Girona before the end of January.

 

Speaking last month, Lewandowski questioned the severity of the punishment and said it would be "painful" to watch three matches from the stands.

Lewandowski also insisted the gesture that landed him in trouble was in fact aimed at Xavi, not the referee.

The former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich star was not part of Barca's squad for Wednesday's Copa del Rey round-of-32 tie with Intercity.

"Lewandowski's absence on Sunday is a setback and it is unexpected," Xavi said after his side's 4-3 victory against the lower-tier opposition.

"We have no choice but to now obey it as we did when they told us he couldn't play against Espanyol."

Manchester United continue to be the centre of plenty of January transfer window speculation.

Erik ten Hag's side are likely to be active in the transfer market following Cristiano Ronaldo's exit.

United are in the mix for a top-four finish but want to bolster their squad in January to boost their chances.

TOP STORY – MAN UTD TO OFFER €4M FOR WANTAWAY ATLETICO STAR

Manchester United are some way from making an agreement with Atletico Madrid on a loan deal for Joao Felix, with the Red Devils prepared to offer only €4million (£3.5m), reports Relevo.

According to the report, Atleti want €12-13m (£10.6m-£11.4m) for the 23-year-old Portuguese striker.

There has been no shortage of clubs linked with Felix, including Arsenal, but United are firmly in the mix for a cut-price forward option.

 

ROUND-UP

Chelsea are willing to beat any offer Arsenal make for Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Mykhaylo Mudryk, according to the Independent. The Mail claims the Ukrainian club will turn down Arsenal's latest £62m offer.

 Borussia Dortmund are monitoring the availability of Real Madrid's 18-year-old Nico Paz, claims Defensa Central. Real Valladolid and Getafe are also keen on taking him on loan.

– Sky Germany reports Liverpool's Roberto Firmino is drawing interest from Saudi Arabian clubs but the Brazilian is leaning towards extending his Anfield stay.

– Sport claims Barcelona will sign Inigo Martinez from Athletic Bilbao when his contract expires in mid-year.

– Barcelona are willing to let 20-year-old midfielder Ansu Fati go out on loan during the January transfer window to make space for new signings, reports Fichajes.

– Fabrizio Romano reports that Ajax have reached full agreement with Villarreal on a deal for Argentinian goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, who will travel to Amsterdam to sign and undergo medical tests in the next 24 hours.

Manchester United have missed out on signing Borussia Monchengladbach's Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer who has reached a verbal agreement to join Bayern Munich, according to Sky Germany.

Barcelona cannot leave their Copa del Rey clash against Intercity happy, according to head coach Xavi, after a historic round-of-32 tie.

The Blaugrana required an Ansu Fati winner in extra time to decide the seven-goal thriller against the third-tier opposition, which saw Oriol Soldevila net a remarkable hat-trick.

While the 31-time winners were able to respond in the right way, retaking the lead on three occasions after seeing the hosts equalise, Xavi is aware that there is plenty to improve ahead of a crunch LaLiga tie against Atletico Madrid this weekend.

"We conceded a lot in a game that we had very much under control," he told a post-match press conference. "We haven't blocked centres, we haven't defended the area well.

"We can't leave happy. The game has been pretty good, but we have to be more forceful. In defence it can happen, but the game had to be finished and there has been a lack of forcefulness.

"But we had to dominate the game, and we were good in the rhythm. We have interesting things, but we have suffered a lot. We've gotten too complicated.

"Today I'm happy with the game. We are lacking forcefulness. But we are in a good moment of play. I have to think about what we can improve."

Barcelona will discover their last-16 opponents in Friday's draw, with the tie to be played following the LaLiga clashes against Atletico and the Supercopa tie against Real Betis in Saudi Arabia.

Ansu Fati scored an extra-time winner as Barcelona scraped past third-tier Intercity 4-3 in the Copa del Rey after Oriol Soldevila's hat-trick.

A topsy-turvy tie saw the Blaugrana repeatedly frustrated by the minnows after Ronald Araujo's early effort had suggested a comfortable night for the 31-time winners.

That was certainly not the case, with Soldevila's hat-trick of equalisers sending the tie into extra time after Ousmane Dembele and Raphinha had each restored Barcelona's lead.

But Soldevila and Intercity could not repeat the feat a fourth time after Fati struck decisively in the 103rd minute.

A swift start for Xavi's side had seen Araujo head in Pablo Torre's corner with just four minutes on the clock, but the defender was soon required to clear off the line at the other end, and Intercity improved further after half-time.

A deserved equaliser followed just before the hour mark, with Vadik Murria nodding a corner down for Soldevila to fire past the helpless Inaki Pena.

The scores were only level for seven minutes as Dembele latched onto Gavi's pass to chip an effort over Gaizka Campos, but Intercity again fought back and Soldevila faced no challenge from Jordi Alba as he headed his second.

Alba redeemed himself with an assist for Raphinha at the other end, only for the winger to be brilliantly denied another by Campos, with Soldevila breaking from the subsequent corner to sensationally force extra time.

A fortuitous Barcelona fourth would prove enough, however, as Fati's deflected effort deceived Campos to send the visitors into the last 16.

Bernardo Silva will likely seek a "new project" in the next few years, but he will wait until the end of the season before discussing his Manchester City future.

Since signing for City from Monaco in 2017, Silva has won four Premier League titles as well as five domestic cups, playing a vital role in Pep Guardiola's team.

Barcelona were reportedly interested in luring the Portugal international to Camp Nou in the last transfer window, though City's reluctance to sell ensured a move never materialised.

While Silva is focused on winning more silverware with City before the end of the season, he has refused to rule out a move prior to next campaign.

"I'm very focused on this season and it doesn't make sense to talk about leaving because we're in the middle of the season," Silva told Record.

"I've been at Manchester City for almost six years, I have a lot of respect for the club, news keeps coming out and people know that there have been talks between me and the club and, at the end of the season, we'll talk again to see what's best for the two sides.

"I'm 28 years-old, I'll be 29 in the summer, and I have two more years on my Manchester City contract. My contract would end at 31.

"I won't hide that my goal in the coming years, if something good happens elsewhere, will probably be to move to a new project."

While Barcelona appears the most likely destination for Silva, the midfielder did not hide his desire to one day return to his home country with Benfica – where he failed to become a first-team regular at the start of his career.

"My goal was to return to Benfica at the age of 32 at the most," he said. "What do I think today? It depends on what happens next summer.

"I'm not going to lie, it's not something I don't think about. I think about it every year. It has always been a goal. I couldn't fulfil my dream of playing for Benfica when I was 19, 20 years old, but I still want to fulfil it.

"Being very realistic, for me to leave Manchester City for Benfica, or to leave another great European club for Benfica... I cannot leave with two or three years on my contract, because Benfica do not have the money to pay these clubs.

"I have to go free. I'm in a difficult situation that I have to manage, but we'll see what happens."

Silva's current side lost more ground in the title race on Saturday, drawing 1-1 against Everton as Arsenal extended their lead at the summit to seven points by beating Brighton and Hove Albion.

Silva is hopeful City can claw back that deficit, while a first Champions League title is also a key target after they lost the 2021 final against Chelsea.

"I'm focused on winning more titles for City," Silva explained. "We want to win the league again.

"We have a competition that we have never won and that is a great objective, which is the Champions League, so we want to try again."

Espanyol have described a decision to delay a suspension for Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski as a "flagrant injustice".

Lewandowski was dismissed for two bookable offences in Barca's final game before the World Cup break in November – a 2-1 win at Osasuna.

The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) initially hit Lewandowski with an extended three-match ban due to an alleged gesture he made towards referee Jesus Gil Manzano, but his punishment was put on hold last week following a complaint to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Lewandowski was therefore able to play in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Camp Nou – an ill-tempered affair in which referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz showed 17 yellow cards, including one for Barca coach Xavi, sending off Jordi Alba and Vinicius Souza.

Despite claiming a valuable point in their bid to avoid relegation, Espanyol have challenged the eligibility of Lewandowski to play.

A statement on the club's website read: "RCD Espanyol has submitted a letter of complaint to the Royal Federation of Spanish Football (RFEF) to challenge the match against FC Barcelona for improper alignment.

"Before the start of the match, the club notified in good faith the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, like the RFEF itself, about the presence in the rival eleven of Robert Lewandowski, who had to serve a penalty after his expulsion for a double yellow in the previous game of the championship. 

"RCD Espanyol, as announced on the eve of the match, will use all the resources at its disposal to defend its interests and those of our fans, aware that this flagrant injustice puts the essence of our competition at risk, and that this injustice it is based on a hasty resolution with obvious legal deficiencies."

Lewandowski failed to find the net against Diego Martinez's men, though he was involved in one notable incident when Leandro Cabrera was shown a red card for appearing to stamp on the striker – though Lahoz reversed the decision following a VAR check.

Any ban for Lewandowski would represent a severe blow for Barca, with the Poland striker scoring 13 goals in 15 LaLiga appearances.

Barca visit third-tier side Intercity in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, before facing Atletico Madrid in LaLiga and taking on Real Betis in the Supercopa de Espana semi-finals.

Page 6 of 158
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.