Erik ten Hag appears as though he will have a huge say over his own Manchester United transfer targets.

The Dutchman has inked a three-year deal at Old Trafford, with the option for a further year.

Ten Hag will officially take over on July 1, with Ralf Rangnick remaining in interim charge.

A face familiar to the Premier League could now be headed to Old Trafford with Ten Hag from Ajax…


TOP STORY - TEN HAG TO BRING HALLER TO UNITED

Manchester United may make a move for Ajax striker Sebastien Haller in the off-season according to The Sun.

Haller currently plays under ten Hag, who will take over at United at the end of the campaign.

The Ivory Coast striker, who spent two years with West Ham United, has netted 33 goals in all competitions for Ajax this term.

 

ROUND-UP

- Barcelona are optimistic that they can land Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski in the off-season, reports Sport. Lewandowski is contracted with Bayern until 2023.

- Liverpool have contacted 22-year-old Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni about a move to England, claims Foot Mercato.

- Nicolo Schira claims that Inter are not interested in signing Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanic, contrary to reports. Pjanic is currently on loan at Besiktas from Barcelona.

- David de Gea and Manchester United are ready to enter into talks on a contract extension reports 90min.

- Fabrizio Romano claims that Luka Modric will ink a new deal with Real Madrid running until 2023.

Carlo Ancelotti appeared to feign ignorance when asked about reports that Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger is set to sign for Real Madrid. 

Thomas Tuchel revealed at the weekend that Rudiger had informed him of his desire to leave Stamford Bridge when his contract expires at the end of the season. 

The Germany international will reportedly finalise a deal to join Madrid this week. 

Asked about Rudiger by beIN SPORTS after Madrid's 4-3 Champions League semi-final defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday, Ancelotti replied with a smile: "Toni? Who is this? 

"He's a Chelsea player until... He's still a Chelsea player and I cannot say anything about this." 

Ancelotti highlighted Madrid's defending as a key factor in their loss to City. 

Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus found the back of the net inside 11 minutes at the Etihad Stadium – the earliest Madrid have conceded twice in a single Champions League game. 

Karim Benzema pulled one back on his 600th appearance for the club and Vinicius Junior found the back of the net after Phil Foden nodded in a cross from Fernandinho in the second half. 

Bernardo Silva restored City's two-goal cushion before Benzema gave Madrid a sliver of additional hope with an audacious Panenka following a handball in the box by Aymeric Laporte. 

"You cannot cover a position with four defenders, You have to help with a midfielder," said Ancelotti. 

"There were losses in individual duels, so we have to be more attentive. With the ball, we had opportunities. We suffered a bit without it, though. But we have to have confidence. 

"We came out of the first leg with a result that isn't good, because we've conceded four goals and not defended well. 

"We hurt City with the ball, but what we have to do is defend better. The result can change in the second leg. They're a very strong team – they showed it tonight – but we competed. Defending better is the key to reaching the final." 

Madrid will be crowned LaLiga champions if they get a point at Espanyol on Saturday, but Ancelotti has no intention of denying the players a chance to celebrate ahead of Wednesday's return game against City at the Santiago Bernabeu. 

"If we are able to win the league, of course we'll celebrate. And it will help us for Wednesday's game," he added. 

Jorginho says Antonio Rudiger will be a big loss for Chelsea as Real Madrid reportedly close in on a deal for the centre-back.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel revealed following Sunday's late win over West Ham that Rudiger intends to leave the club when his contract expires at the end of the season.

Tuchel suggested that Rudiger's decision was influenced by the financial restrictions imposed on Chelsea while a new owner to succeed Roman Abramovich is being sought.

According to widespread reports on Tuesday, Madrid have had no such problem agreeing terms with Rudiger and an announcement is expected to be made imminently.

The Germany international has spent five seasons at Stamford Bridge and Jorginho admits his team-mate's absence will be felt both on the pitch and off it.

"He's been here a long time so if he leaves then we're going to miss him," he told Sky Sports News. "He's a big personality and he's helped us a lot. 

"We've had amazing times here; he's a good friend of mine and of course if he leaves everyone at the club will miss him, not just me."

Asked what he will miss the most about Rudiger, Jorginho said: "His craziness. He makes me laugh a lot; all of his jokes and laughs we've had together – that's the nice part."

Rudiger has started 47 games this season, which is five more than any other Chelsea player, with Jorginho sixth on that list (42 appearances).

 

Indeed, no player from a club in Europe's top five leagues has started more matches in 2021-22 when taking all competitions into account.

Rudiger played no part in Chelsea's victory over West Ham last time out, however, a game in which Jorginho missed a penalty before Christian Pulisic snatched a late victory.

Jorginho was criticised for his spot-kick style after sending his effort straight at goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, but the midfielder suggested VAR was partly to blame for the miss.

"This sort of pressure, especially in games like this when you need to win and it's last minute, you try to isolate your mind from all that pressure even though it's hard," he said. 

"Then you have the VAR so it takes longer, it's harder to keep focus. 

"What you need to do and what I try to do is I try to isolate my mind of all this pressure, and unfortunately this time it didn't work."

Prior to his penalty miss against West Ham, Jorginho had converted each of his last 13 for Chelsea (excluding shoot-outs) in a run stretching back to Boxing Day 2020.

"When you have that little moment of doubt that's usually when you make the mistake," the Italy international added. "Maybe I had too much time to think about it, I don't know.

"This time it went like that and I'm sorry. I feel bad because it's not a nice feeling."

Ronald Araujo has signed a new long-term deal with Barcelona, the Spanish giants have confirmed.

The 23-year-old has been a regular for Barca over the past two seasons and has now committed to the club until the end of the 2025-26 campaign.

Barca announced the new deal on their official website on Tuesday, with the centre-back's release clause set at €1billion.

Since making his debut for Barca in October 2019, Araujo – signed from Uruguayan side Boston River – has featured 78 times in all competitions.

 

He has helped keep 13 clean sheets over that period and also chipped in with six goals, most recently netting in the 4-0 thumping of LaLiga leaders Real Madrid last month.

Araujo's 39 appearances this term is bettered only by Jordi Alba (40), Gavi (42), Frenkie de Jong (43) and Sergio Busquets (47) among Barca's outfield players.

The Uruguay international also ranks in the top 10 for successful passes (1,242) among defenders in La Liga this term, a metric led by Madrid's David Alaba (1,749).

Xavi had been key to tie Araujo down, and previously revealed that an agreement was close to completion.

It seems bizarre to suggest that in a contest between a club that has never won the European Cup or Champions League and another that has won 13 of them, it is the latter who will go into it as the underdog.

That is the case this week, though, with Manchester City and Real Madrid set to go head-to-head for a place in this season's Champions League final.

There is obviously reasoning behind this, with Pep Guardiola's side winning every other trophy available to them in recent years and breezing through their European campaign up to this point, a few scars from their quarter-final with Atletico Madrid aside.

Carlo Ancelotti's men have had a tougher road to get here, having to get past newly crowned French champions Paris Saint-Germain and reigning European champions Chelsea so far in the knockout stages.

They had to produce stirring comebacks in both ties, but City are an altogether different prospect, having finished above PSG in the group stage and beaten Chelsea home and away in the Premier League this season.

The English side have very few obvious weaknesses, but perhaps there is one area where Ancelotti can focus ahead of the first leg in Manchester.

Guardiola has recently been slightly overstating his lack of options, saying before the game with Watford at the weekend that City were suffering an injury crisis, before using 14 players that cost approximately £695million (€825m) (according to Transfermarkt.co.uk) to beat the Hornets 5-1.

However, one of his star performers this season has undoubtedly been Joao Cancelo, and the Portuguese full-back is suspended for the first clash with Madrid, while Kyle Walker remains a doubt with an ankle injury.

"They are doubts," the City manager said at a news conference on Monday when asked about Walker and John Stones. "They didn't train for the last week, 10 days... We will see how they feel and take a decision tomorrow."

This could lead to Guardiola having to get a bit creative at right-back, with Oleksandr Zinchenko presumably getting the nod on the left.

Most eyes will be on the likes of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric to lead the visitors, with both producing their usual big-game performances to make the difference against PSG and Chelsea, but the key at the Etihad Stadium may be another slightly unsung hero.

It's not that Vinicius Junior is not highly rated. This season he has exploded into one of the most potent attackers in world football, but this could be the perfect time for him to cement his name as a star of Real Madrid's present and future.

The Brazilian has always been considered a talent but could never quite put together the consistent run of form expected of regular starters in the famous all-white kit, until this season.

Vinicius has registered 31 goal involvements (17 goals, 14 assists) in 45 games in all competitions (42 starts), and has created 94 chances from open play.

Compare this to last season and you can see his significant improvement, managing just 10 goal involvements (six goals, four assists) in 49 appearances (31 starts) in 2020-21, with just 43 chances created from open play.

His numbers are now up there with the best in Europe. In terms of chances created from open play in the top five European leagues this season, only Bruno Fernandes (101) and Thomas Muller (100) have created more than his 94.

No-one has attempted more than his 303 dribbles this season, while only Adama Traore, Kylian Mbappe (both 137) and Allan Saint-Maximin (136) have completed more dribbles than his 127.

Vinicius is well established as a standout performer in LaLiga this season as well, with only Benzema (25), Enes Unal and Raul de Tomas (both 15) having scored more than his 14, while only Benzema (36) has more goal involvements than his 22.

Speaking of Benzema, his partnership with the 34-year-old marksman is developing into one of the most potent in the game, with the duo having provided the most goals for each other in the Champions League this season (six), ahead of Ajax's Antony and Sebastian Haller, and Bayern Munich's Leroy Sane and Muller (both four).

Vinicius is always a threat, as shown against Chelsea at the Santiago Bernabeu in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final. Blues right-back Reece James had been doing a good job of containing him, until one switch off in extra time allowed the 21-year-old down the left, and he played a perfect cross in for Benzema to score what proved to be the winning goal in the tie.

There is another Brazilian winger for City to potentially watch out for, though, in Rodrygo, who also played a crucial role in dumping out Chelsea by scoring moments after coming off the bench in the second leg.

While he has certainly not emerged like Vinicius just yet, the former Santos player has been making himself a more integral part of Ancelotti's squad, with 41 appearances in all competitions so far this season (19 starts), which is already more than the 33 (13 starts) he managed in 2020-21.

He has 12 goal involvements (four goals, eight assists) this season, up from nine last year (two goals, seven assists), and the youngster recently told Real Madrid's official website that he is looking forward to the test of City.

"They'll be tough opponents," he said. "We know the way they play and how good they are. If they've made it to the Champions League semi-finals, it means they're good, and it's down to the way City like to play, with a lot of possession.

"We're expecting a tough match and we have to make sure we keep playing like we have been and try to make it through."

Rodrygo might be under more pressure to perform given recent rumours that he may be one of the players who will have to make way for Mbappe should the club finally land the PSG star at the end of the season.

That being said, arguably Mbappe's best position is where Vinicius is currently doing his damage, which leads you to wonder if he too might be playing for his long-term future.

Of course, the Frenchman can play through the middle but there's another significant obstacle in the way there too in the form of his compatriot Benzema.

If Vinicius and Rodrygo want to make a case for maintaining their roles at the club, they have the perfect opportunity to do so by taking Madrid to a first Champions League final since 2018, and we will see just how ready for the challenge they are at the Etihad.

Sergino Dest could be out for the rest of the season after suffering a hamstring injury during Barcelona's defeat to Rayo Vallecano on Sunday.

The United States international was replaced by Clement Lenglet at half-time due to damage he sustained in the first half of a 1-0 loss at Camp Nou.

Dest underwent tests and Barca confirmed the full-back has injured his right hamstring, but did not put a timescale on his absence.

A club statement said: "Tests carried out on Sergino Dest have confirmed that the player has injured the semitendinosus muscle in his right hamstring.

"The player is unavailable for selection and his recovery will dictate his return."

Barca's third consecutive home defeat left runaway leaders Real Madrid needing only a point from five games to win the LaLiga title.

The second-placed Blaugrana travel to Copa del Rey winners Real Betis for their next match on Saturday.

Xavi has told Barcelona they have "five finals" to play as they attempt to banish their April blues and make sure of a Champions League place.

A third consecutive home defeat has left second-placed Barcelona 15 points behind leaders Real Madrid, who should wrap up the LaLiga title on Saturday, needing just to avoid defeat against Espanyol to make sure.

While Barcelona's great rivals get set to celebrate, there is significant work to do for coach Xavi after his Blaugrana team were beaten 1-0 at home by Rayo Vallecano, who completed a league double over the Catalan giants.

Andoni Iraola became the first manager to beat Barcelona home and away in his first season in LaLiga since Quique Hernandez did so at Hercules in the 1996-97 season.

Alvaro Garcia scored with the only shot on target that Vallecano managed all night, and with a little luck Barcelona would have enjoyed a better outcome, but they are all out of luck just now.

A Europa League loss to Eintracht Frankfurt and LaLiga defeats to Cadiz and now Vallecano have been unexpected setbacks for a team who were on an immense high five weeks ago when they spanked Real Madrid 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Assessing the Vallecano setback and its impact, Xavi said: "I don't think it's a lack of personality on the part of the team. There are emergencies at the club, both football-wise and financially. It's a difficult situation and we have to face it.

"Now it's time to rest, disconnect and in the middle of the week we will get back on and prepare for the Mallorca game. We have five finals remaining, we've complicated it for ourselves."

 

Barcelona should still achieve a top-four finish, given they remain six points clear of fifth-placed Real Betis, but Xavi wants more than to see his side stumble over the line.

Their objective is to finish the season strongly and build momentum for the next campaign, and performances such as Sunday's disrupt the significant progress that has been made since Xavi's appointment in November.

Speaking to Movistar LaLiga, Xavi said: "In the first half we were not good, but in the second we improved, and the feeling is that we deserved much more. We had shots from all sides, from outside [the penalty area], from inside. But it didn't want to go in.

"In the first half it wasn't us, we didn't have the personality that we had to have in the game. Everything has been complicated for us today. It was a slow game, with interruptions."

He said Barcelona needed to show greater desire, and pointed to how Sunday's visitors capitalised on their big moment in front of goal.

The three shots that Rayo Vallecano attempted ranked as their lowest total in a LaLiga game this season.

"Rayo had one and a half chances," Xavi said. "We return to the issue of effectiveness.

"We are in a difficult situation. We are still in the Champions League places but we have complicated it for ourselves because if we had beaten Cadiz and Rayo it would have almost given us qualification for the Champions League."

Sergio Busquets admitted Barcelona are stuck in "a negative dynamic" after a 1-0 defeat to Rayo Vallecano that means they have lost three consecutive home games for the first time this century.

Alvaro Garcia's fine strike in the seventh minute condemned Barcelona to a Camp Nou loss, with Vallecano doing the double over the Catalan giants in LaLiga this season.

Barcelona had only suffered three straight losses at home once in their rich history, when Louis van Gaal's team experienced that disappointment in games spanning the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons.

Now they must pick themselves up from the bitter blow and go again next Sunday, when Real Mallorca will be their visitors.

Busquets said in a post-match LaLiga interview: "We're finding it really hard to win games at home at the moment. We've been conceding goals very early and that makes it even tougher for us, then you suffer a little bit more.

"Then the teams close up and defend the result. When you're not effective in both areas, it's a bit of a struggle as well."

 

Barcelona did not concede until early in the second half when losing 1-0 to Cadiz at home, but in their Europa League loss to Eintracht Frankfurt they were 2-0 down by the break, and it took two goals in second-half stoppage time to cut their deficit to 3-2 in that game.

Barcelona's latest defeat means they remain second in the Spanish top flight, albeit level on points with third-placed Sevilla, and Real Madrid's lead at the top is 15 points with five rounds of games remaining.

Madrid can clinch the title by avoiding defeat to Espanyol next weekend.

Captain Busquets said Barcelona attempted to add pace to their game in the second half, but they were largely flat and increasingly desperate as Vallecano manfully defended their lead.

Barcelona led the shot count 18-3, but only five of their shots hit the target. Their 71.3 per cent of possession counted for little come the final whistle as Vallecano became just the fourth promoted team to win both of their games against Barcelona in a LaLiga campaign, and the first since UD Salamanca in 1997-98.

"They were very well set up, we weren't effective," Busquets said. "When you don't score and the minutes go by, everything gets a lot tougher.

"We're in this negative dynamic at Camp Nou. We haven't been able to take advantage of the games we've had, and we've ended up level with Sevilla.

"Maybe in the second half we needed to put more attacking players on and go for the game. We had crosses in, we had chances, but it wasn't to be."

Barcelona suffered a shock 1-0 home defeat to Rayo Vallecano that means Real Madrid can step up plans for a title party.

This was a third consecutive home loss for the Catalans, only the second time that Barcelona have suffered such a fate in their history, with Alvaro Garcia's early strike the difference between the teams.

It means Real Madrid's lead at the top is 15 points with five games remaining, putting Los Blancos on the brink of being crowned champions.

That will be confirmed if Carlo Ancelotti's team avoid defeat to Espanyol next Saturday, while Xavi's Barcelona have slackened their grip on second place with this setback.

Vallecano, sitting 14th in LaLiga before their arrival at Camp Nou, snatched a seventh-minute lead when Garcia made a smart run into space to meet a chipped pass from Isi Palazon and fired sharply into the bottom right corner.

Jordi Alba curled a shot that flicked wide off the post as Barcelona chased an equaliser, then Gavi wanted a penalty when he slumped to the turf under a nothing challenge from Santiago Comesana. Referee Isidro Diaz de Mera Escuderos was unimpressed and booked coach Xavi for taking his complaints too far.

A clever floated shot from Gavi hit the crossbar shortly before half-time, and although Ferran Torres lobbed the ball into the net from the rebound, he had been in an offside position.

Jordi Alba had a shot deflect over as Barcelona pushed early in the second half, but the home side were horribly flat, with Ferran Torres and Frenkie de Jong replaced by Memphis Depay and Nico Gonzalez as Xavi looked to inject some energy.

Depay had a close-range shot blocked by Nikola Maras, and the Dutch striker saw a stinging 20-yard strike punched over the bar by Stole Dimitrievski, but the equaliser would not come.

 

What does it mean? Barca on the slide

Barcelona had won their last seven home games against Rayo Vallecano in LaLiga, and were seeking eight in a row against them for the first time in the competition, but this was poor from them.

This is a bad time of the season to get stuck in a rut, and Camp Nou defeats to Cadiz in LaLiga and Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League have been followed by another aberration. Barcelona led the shot count 17-3 here, but despite playing 14 minutes of second-half stoppage time, they could not put produce a clinical finish.


New boys slay Camp Nou

Vallecano, who came up through the Segunda Division play-offs last term, have become the fourth promoted team to win both of their games against Barcelona in a LaLiga campaign, and the first since UD Salamanca in 1997-98. They have also improved their record when leading at half-time in LaLiga this season to W8, D1, L0.

 

Famous night for Iraola

After his team's 1-0 win at home in October, Andoni Iraola has become the first head coach to beat Barcelona home and away in his first season in LaLiga since Quique Hernandez for Hercules in the 1996-97 campaign.

The home win in the autumn was a result that was followed by Barcelona sacking Ronald Koeman, leading to Xavi's appointment.

 

What's next?

Barcelona will have home advantage against next Sunday when Real Mallorca visit Camp Nou. Vallecano are also back on duty next Sunday, hosting Real Sociedad.

Barcelona director Mateu Alemany has confirmed holding talks with Antonio Rudiger's agent, but insists the Chelsea defender's future was not discussed during the meeting.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel revealed following Sunday's late win over West Ham that Rudiger intends to leave the club when his contract expires at the end of the season.

Tuchel suggested that Rudiger's decision was influenced by the financial restrictions imposed on Chelsea while a new owner to succeed Roman Abramovich is being sought.

Barcelona are one of a number of teams to have been linked with the Germany international, along with fierce rivals Real Madrid, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

Speaking ahead of Barca's home LaLiga clash with Rayo Vallecano later on Sunday, Alemany was probed about his side's reported interest in the centre-back.

"We had a meeting with his agent, but he also represents other players," Alemany told Movistar. 

"We didn't talk about his situation, but about many other things because his agent represents many players. It's the house rule not to talk about players from other clubs."

Barca have had to contend with financial limitation of their own, yet they were still able to sign Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dani Alves and Adama Traore in January.

And the Catalan giants, who will end 2021-22 trophyless, are expected to be busy in the upcoming transfer window.

"We already have advanced ideas," Alemany said. "We will make a collective evaluation when the league ends or when our position is definitively set.

"Last summer was complicated as we were blocked at the 'fair play' level. Now we are satisfied with the coaching staff and we intend to make a leap in quality. 

"Our desire is to make a competitive team for next year."

Kylian Mbappe could be at Real Madrid next season, but Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Leonardo jokingly warned they may be feeling overconfident. 

PSG clinched their 10th Ligue 1 title in bizarre circumstances against Lens on Saturday, as fans made their way out of the stands in the 75th minute in protest at the club's management.

The game finished in a 1-1 draw with 10-man Lens equalising through Corentin Jean in the 88th minute at the Parc des Princes, and the final whistle was met with boos in some sections.

Mbappe has been involved in 51 goals (33 scored, 18 assisted) in 42 appearances in all competitions for PSG this season, more than double the haul of Lionel Messi (22 – nine goals, 13 assists) and almost three times as many as Neymar (18 – 11 goals, seven assists). 

Only Robert Lewandowski (53 – 48 goals, five assists) and Karim Benzema (52 – 39 goals, 13 assists) have managed more in all competitions across the top five European leagues.

Mbappe can leave PSG on a free transfer after his contract expires in June, but the club are understandably keen to tie him down to a renewal with Madrid circling. 

The World Cup-winning attacker insists his mind is not yet made up, and Leonardo playfully reminded Madrid that they have yet to prise Mbappe away from the club, despite their long-term interest. 

"In Madrid, they have been sure for the past three years that Kylian will end up at Real. Maybe they are a bit too sure about that," Leonardo told Sky Sport Italia. 

"When Kylian says he hasn't decided yet, I believe him. We have an upfront relationship. He is checking everything to make the best decision. 

"He knows we want him here and he is everyone's protege. Today, he is the best player in the world. He will make his decision together with us – the relationship is very good." 

He added to Canal+: "Kylian is still thinking. There's a possibility he'll stay. With or without him next season, it changes everything." 

Barcelona boss Xavi has highlighted the difficulties of competing for trophies after Lionel Messi's departure, but says the Catalan giants cannot afford to replicate the recent struggles of Manchester United.

The Blaugrana head into Sunday's match against Rayo Vallecano 15 points behind LaLiga leaders Real Madrid with just 18 points to play for, albeit the buffer to Real Betis in fourth is six.

After previous boss Ronald Koeman left the Catalan giants in ninth position, Xavi has overseen a revival of the team's fortunes and is looking to secure a top-four finish at the end of a transitional season for the club.

Although Xavi acknowledged Barcelona will need to be patient in their pursuit of trophies after losing legendary forward Messi to Paris Saint-Germain, he said the club cannot afford to miss out on Champions League football, highlighting the Red Devils as an example of a household name to have struggled to qualify for the competition.

"It's our reality. This is the post-[Lionel] Messi era, that's difficult in itself," Xavi told a news conference ahead of Sunday's clash with Rayo Vallecano. "He used to win games on his own. We have to be patient. I'm excited to win trophies, but we have to strengthen. We have to be realistic.

"We're in the first year of the post-Messi era, we have to be patient. We've seen a lot of great teams, like at Manchester United, [where] it's been hard for them to come back, to qualify for the Champions League. 

"Barca can't allow that. We have to fight for trophies, we want to compete."

Xavi's arrival has had a positive impact on the Camp Nou outfit, who had briefly threatened to challenge runaway leaders Madrid. 

Among the players to look rejuvenated under Xavi is Ousmane Dembele, whose nine league assists in 2022 place him level with former team-mate Messi as the most creative players in the top five European Leagues this calendar year.

Meanwhile, another of Xavi's trusted first-teamers, Frenkie de Jong, has been linked with a move to Old Trafford after his former Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was confirmed to be taking over from Ralf Rangnick at the end of this season.

Xavi, however, is desperate to keep hold of the midfielder "for many years", saying he has the talent to "mark an era" at Camp Nou.

"Frenkie is very important for me, for the club and for the team," Xavi added. "He is a footballer who has to mark an era, for his quality and personality.

"He is at a very good level since I arrived, and he has to continue scoring goals, [making] assists ... and being a protagonist in the games. He could be one of the best midfielders in the world in the coming years. 

"We have not commented on it [De Jong's future], but if it is up to me, he would continue for many years."

Xavi said his Barcelona team must fight for titles next season, as he acknowledged second place was the highest finish realistically available to them in LaLiga this term.

Barcelona earned a hard-fought 1-0 win over Real Sociedad on Thursday, and go into Sunday's home contest with Rayo Vallecano 15 points behind league leaders Real Madrid with just 18 points left to play for.

The Catalan giants' victory in the Basque Country, secured courtesy of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's first-half header, kept them six points clear of fifth-placed Real Betis as Xavi attempts to lead his team to Champions League qualification.

Xavi, however, recognises that improvements will be needed next season, acknowledging that while second place is the best Barcelona can hope for this term, "only winning" counts at Camp Nou.

"We are playing a lot, [qualification for] the Champions League and second place [are our targets]," he told reporters at a news conference on Saturday. "The league [title] is very difficult.

"We have dropped a little in terms of the game compared to a few weeks ago. If we recover, we will be closer to results. We must finish as high as possible, which realistically is second place.

"Since November in the league we've been fighting with Madrid. Next year we have to fight to win titles, here it is only worth winning. 

"Since November, we are one or two points behind Madrid, but they are up there on their own merits and so are we, we've gone from ninth to second [since Xavi replaced former boss Ronald Koeman]."

After suffering back-to-back home losses to Eintracht Frankfurt and Cadiz, Barcelona are looking to avoid losing three consecutive games at Camp Nou for just the second time in their history when they host Vallecano, having only previously done so under Louis van Gaal in 1998.

However, Xavi has undoubtedly made a positive impact since replacing Koeman at the helm, with the January arrivals of Ferran Torres and Aubameyang, LaLiga's top scorer in 2022 with nine goals, boosting their hopes of finishing second.

Rumours have linked several big names, including Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland, with summer moves to Camp Nou, but Xavi says the need for further additions must continue to be balanced with the club's finances. 

"We are planning for next year, but we depend on the club's economy," he added. "Let's see what we can do, and people have to go out. You have to do good planning and the idea is to have two competitive players per position.

"We have to start planning but what most concerns us is day-to-day, staying as high as possible, but let's see what economic situation we are in."

Meanwhile, Xavi revealed Gerard Pique, who has made headlines after leaked audio messages highlighted his involvement in moving the Supercopa de Espana to Saudi Arabia, is a doubt for Sunday's clash after playing through injury on Thursday.  

"We are managing it as best we can," Xavi said of his former team-mate's injury.

"He has had discomfort for two or three months, but he endured 80 minutes [against Sociedad] in a spectacular way. We will see tomorrow, he has not been able to train today."

Rumours surrounding Kylian Mbappe's future are likely to rumble on for a couple more months yet.

For a long time, it was reported the France World Cup winner was a shoo-in to join LaLiga giants Real Madrid.

But more recently there have been rumblings he could be swayed to remain at Paris Saint-Germain, and a bumper new contract offer may be on the table.


TOP STORY – PSG READY TO OFFER MBAPPE HUGE MONEY TO HOLD OFF MADRID

Mbappe will be the hottest free agent on the market should he decide not to renew with PSG and a move to the Spanish capital still cannot be ruled out.

However, Goal reports his switch to the Santiago Bernabeu has hit a snag due to a dispute over the 23-year-old's image rights.

Meanwhile, PSG are reportedly ready to offer Mbappe an eye-watering €50million annual salary, a deal that would make him the highest paid player at the Parc des Princes, should he choose to remain in the French capital.


ROUND-UP

- Mauricio Pochettino may not be headed to Old Trafford to become Manchester United boss, but his PSG future still remains unclear. Le Parisien says Antonio Conte is tempted to leave Tottenham for the French capital.

- Declan Rice has put Manchester United and Chelsea on red alert after turning down a third contract offer from West Ham, which the Guardian said was worth £200,000 a week.

- Arsenal's continuing search for a striker has apparently led to interest in Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus. Edu, the Gunners' technical director, has been speaking to the Brazil star's representatives, according to the Athletic.

- Newcastle United are on the hunt for close-season reinforcements. Foot Mercato say Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby and Monaco defender Benoit Badiashile are both on the Magpies' radar.

There was a surprise guest at the wedding of Real Betis star Joaquin in July 2005 – surprise because this particular appearance hinged on the outcome of a football match five weeks earlier.

As Joaquin and his new wife stood at the front of the church in his hometown of Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz, something else couldn't help but hog attention.

The Copa del Rey trophy, draped in green and white ribbons stood tall – literally, because it's huge – and proud.

That's right, the Copa del Rey was an especially notable guest at Joaquin's wedding, as the winger – then 23 years old – had only recently helped Betis to just their second success in the competition and first since 1977.

Joaquin has always been regarded as something of a practical joker, with that not-so-subtle wedding decoration very much from his wheelhouse.

Fast-forward 17 years and Joaquin is readying himself for another tilt at the crown with his beloved Betis, who themselves haven't reached the final since that momentous 2-1 extra-time win over Osasuna at the Vicente Calderon.

 

Fittingly, Betis' opponents on Saturday will be the other club most people would associate with Joaquin: Valencia, with whom he won the only other trophy of his career in 2008 – also the Copa – during a five-year spell.

That triumph spawned another curious – but no less Joaquin – photo of the winger with the trophy, as he was snapped stark naked squatting next to the cup in Valencia's dressing room.

Hopefully social media won't see a repeat of that one on Saturday…

Joaquin didn't feature for Valencia in that final, however, and therefore his 2005 success will gratefully remain the focus for most.

While Joaquin is by no means the Betis regular he was 17 years ago when he was an exciting fleet-footed winger, this occasion will still be all about him in the build-up, with there also a degree of aptness around the fact Saturday's game is taking place in Seville, at La Cartuja.

This campaign is expected to be Joaquin's last as a player. Now 40, his contract expires at the end of the season and in November he hinted retirement was likely in 2022. Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini quickly looked to sweep that under the rug, adamant such decisions will wait until 2021-22 is finished, and there's been very little public discussion of the subject from he or Joaquin since.

It's easy to understand why many aren't predicting another year of Joaquin in LaLiga, though. Even if you ignore the fairly important point of his age, his time on the pitch has reduced significantly this term.

In LaLiga he has made only two starts this season and in total featured for just 395 minutes. Of course, he's been used across multiple competitions in 2021-22 and was named in the starting XI eight times in the Europa League.

But while his 31 appearances is actually one more than in 2020-21, his minutes-per-game average of 36 (1,117 total) is 12.4 minutes fewer than last term, highlighting how he's become even more of a peripheral figure.

But that's not to say his influence has waned. Pellegrini stood aside before the first leg of their Copa semi-final defeat of Rayo Vallecano to let Joaquin deliver a speech.

He said: "Look each other in the eyes. We are here because of ourselves. I don't know if I should talk to you as a team-mate, friend or captain, but I will do it as a Betico, because I know what many of them must be feeling here today.

"They are going to be there until the death. The Beticos, and this club, have suffered for a long time. Sacrifice and effort lead to glory. That's the reward.

"I had an uncle who used to say, and he taught me this, that there's nothing more beautiful than making other people happy – today we have that chance. We're going to go out there and show we want to be in that final."

Betis fell behind early on in that game in Vallecas but went on to win the game 2-1. They then looked to be heading for extra time when Bebe spectacularly put Rayo ahead with 80 minutes played of the second leg in Seville, but a moment of inspiration from Joaquin right at the end opened the Rayo defence up.

He brought down a cross-field pass, glided away from Bebe and slipped a perfectly weighted pass in behind the defence for Sergio Canales, whose prodded pass was deflected towards goal and tapped in by Borja Iglesias.

The entire Betis bench and staff mobbed Joaquin at full-time, fully aware of what their achievement meant to him – but it was also a show of appreciation, with the veteran's cameo showing he remains a very useful option.

On a per-90-minute basis across all competitions this season, Joaquin tops Betis' charts for assists (0.32), expected assists (0.29) and chances created (2.9), while his 4.3 dribbles attempted is bettered by only three players.

 

Of course, his sample size is much smaller than the likes of Nabil Fekir and Canales – the point isn't that he's better than them, simply that he's packing a lot of quality into his relatively brief appearances.

Don't expect to see his name in Betis' line-up on Saturday, but do not be surprised if he comes on and makes a telling impact – given the legendary status he holds not only at Betis but also in LaLiga, there'll be many willing him to enjoy a successful end to a fine career.

Let's not forget, his 595 LaLiga appearances is a record for an outfield player, while only one man in Spanish top-flight history has appeared in more seasons (Miguel Soler, 20) than his 19.

Assuming he does in fact play some part on Saturday, it will be his 106th Copa del Rey appearance, extending another record among non-goalkeepers.

A 17th wedding anniversary might not be a big milestone for most, but you can count on Joaquin bringing the Copa along for the celebrations if Betis succeed this weekend.

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