Ronald Koeman praised Frenkie de Jong for improving the attacking aspect of his game after chipping in with another goal and an assist in Barcelona's 2-0 win over Elche.

The Netherlands international profited from a Diego Gonzalez error to give Barca a 39th-minute lead and crossed for substitute Riqui Puig to score a late second in Sunday's LaLiga clash.

De Jong now has three goals and two assists in his last six games in all competitions, while his five LaLiga goals in 18 months at Camp Nou is one more than he managed in five seasons in the Eredivisie.

He also contested more duels (11) than any other Barca player at Estadio Martinez Valero and no visiting player intercepted the ball more often (twice).

But it is the attacking side of De Jong's game that most pleased head coach Koeman, who wants his midfielders to take the goalscoring burden off the forward line.

"The three forwards aren't enough; we need the midfielders to score too," Koeman said. "It's good that he's scoring and assisting.

"He's always improving. We want the midfielders to get into the box and get up there."

Fellow midfielder Puig followed that advice by getting on the end of De Jong's cross and heading past Edgar Badia from his seventh touch after being introduced from the bench.

It was the academy graduate's first goal at senior level but he admitted to being disappointed by his lack of playing time this term, having made only one start in all competitions.

"I'm having quite a difficult season because I'm not used to playing so little," Puig told Movistar.

"But I'm getting stronger mentally. I'm happy with the team's hard work and how my team-mates are helping me."

Victory for Barcelona was their fourth in a row in the league, three of those without conceding, as they moved up to third place.

The Catalan giants have not conceded in any of their last nine LaLiga games against Elche, meanwhile, which is their best such run against a single opponent in the competition.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen produced a big save to deny Emiliano Rigoni with Barca 1-0 up and Koeman was grateful for his compatriot's shot-stopping ability.

"They didn't have many chances - they only had one and it came from a big mistake from our defence," Koeman said. "But Ter Stegen was very good in the one-on-one.

"Luckily we have a good goalkeeper, because they could've equalised at that point.

"Defensively, apart from that mistake, we did well. The best thing about today was our pressing and our performance without the ball. We deserved to win.

"I'm very happy with how we won. We've had lots of matches in the last few days and we've kept focus.

"We were better than our opponents. We were patient. We won possession. It was difficult to score because they had lots of men behind the ball. But we pressed well."

Barcelona return to action on Wednesday with a trip to Rayo Vallecano in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.

Frenkie de Jong is unsure of Barcelona's title credentials despite their improving LaLiga form.

De Jong scored the opener and created a late second for substitute Riqui Puig during Sunday's 2-0 win at Elche.

That made it four wins out of four for Barca in Spain's top flight since the turn of the year, although they will be 10 points behind Atletico Madrid having played a game more if the leaders are able to beat Valencia in Sunday's late kick-off.

"I'm not sure," he told LaLiga TV when asked whether Ronald Koeman's side are back in the title race.

"We have to win our games and we'll see where we end up towards the end of the season."

Nevertheless, the Netherlands midfielder has no doubt Barca are an improved side after a tough start to life under his former national team boss Koeman.

"Since the new year we're a lot better and we've played most of the games away from home and won all of them in LaLiga. We're in a better moment," De Jong said.

"I think [beating Elche] will do us good, we've worked hard, especially now in the new year. We're growing and improving as a team and hopefully we can keep improving."

De Jong's tally of five goals across his season-and-a-half with Barca has already bettered his total of Eredivisie strikes for Ajax (four) across five campaigns, and the 23-year-old also feels that the imperative to improve applies to him personally, even after a man-of-the-match display.

"Yes, I do think I can play better but it’s not only about goals and assists," he added. "Of course I'm happy but there's more to come."

Frenkie de Jong played a prominent role as Barcelona beat LaLiga strugglers Elche 2-0 to stay in touch with the leading pack.

Lionel Messi completed his two-match suspension for a red card during the Supercopa de Espana defeat to Athletic Bilbao and Barca struggled to create clear chances in his absence against well-organised opponents.

But an error from Diego Gonzalez allowed De Jong to take advantage in the 39th-minute – the Netherlands international unlikely to score an easier one than his fifth LaLiga goal.

A minute from time, De Jong then turned provider as he crossed for Riqui Puig to head home, ensuring Barca are three points behind Real Madrid, although they will be 10 points shy of Atletico Madrid again if the leaders are able to beat Valencia later on Sunday.

Ronald Koeman declared he must be the wrong coach for Barcelona if he cannot be allowed to criticise the team for falling short of required standards.

The Dutchman is approaching six months in charge of the Camp Nou giants and he expressed frustration on Thursday when his team needed extra time to see off third-tier minnows Cornella in the Copa del Rey.

Miralem Pjanic and Ousmane Dembele missed penalties, and that factor particularly stuck in the craw for Koeman, a spot-kick expert in his playing days.

Koeman said his players needed to "have more responsibility", adding: "You can't miss two penalties as Barcelona players."

Those forthright comments have come in for plenty of scrutiny in Spain, and Koeman was asked about their impact on his players when he spoke on Saturday, ahead of a LaLiga trip to face Elche for which Lionel Messi is suspended.

"I am not going to lie. I say what I see," said the former Everton, Netherlands and Ajax boss.

"If you are a Barca player, you have to be demanding. I criticise them with respect. I'm not going for anyone, I want to help them, but if we play against Cornella with all due respect and we are not able to win in 90 minutes, I have to say what I see.

"If not, bring in another coach."

Koeman pointed to Barcelona's dismal overall penalty record this season, including the Supercopa semi-final shoot-out against Real Sociedad.

He said: "Every player can miss a penalty but to miss seven out of 12 is too much.

"The number one to take penalties is Leo [Messi] but if he's not there on the pitch to take it we must have other players to have the responsibility to score from the penalty spot.

"Yesterday and today we trained that to improve."

Sunday's clash with Elche will be a seventh successive game away from Camp Nou for Barcelona, including their Supercopa games last week.

Barcelona have struck on strong form in LaLiga and had moved up to third place heading into the weekend.

However, leaders Atletico Madrid stood 10 points ahead of them, with their rise driven to a large part by the goals of Luis Suarez, the striker Barcelona allowed to leave in the close season.

Suarez, third on Barcelona's all-time scorers list, has 11 goals in 14 league games for his new club.

Asked if Barcelona are missing Suarez, Koeman said: "I don't like answering that. You only ask me when he scores. He is a great player, I wish him the best of luck, but the decision has been made."

Koeman would love to bring new players to Barcelona, but the club's finances have been heavily hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Any possibility of a new club president launching his tenure with marquee recruits was scotched when elections, due to take place this Sunday, were delayed.

"My position is known: we lack people, but the economic situation of the club is an influence," Koeman said. "I think we all think the same. If no one arrives, I accept it and we continue the same, but if we want more we must sign."

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.

Lionel Messi will miss Barcelona's LaLiga match at Elche on Sunday after losing his appeal against a two-match ban.

The Argentina star was suspended for his red card in the Supercopa de Espana final defeat to Athletic Bilbao, in which he was sent off for striking Asier Villalibre following a VAR review.

It was the first time in 753 appearances for the club in all competitions that Messi was dismissed.

Barca appealed against the suspension but confirmed on Friday that their efforts had been in vain, meaning Messi will not be available for the game at Estadio Martinez Valero.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner had already served one match of his ban, having been absent from Thursday's Copa del Rey win at Cornella.

Ousmane Dembele and Martin Braithwaite scored in extra time after Barca missed two penalties against the third-tier side.

Messi will be free to return in next Wednesday's Copa del Rey last-16 clash against Rayo Vallecano, with another meeting with Athletic, this time in LaLiga, to follow on January 31.

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