If reports are to be believed, Lionel Messi will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

However, his next destination remains a mystery.

The United States, though, could be next on the list for the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

 

TOP STORY – MIAMI MOVE ON THE CARDS FOR MESSI?

Lionel Messi could be keen on joining David Beckham's Inter Miami in MLS, claims Sport.

Messi, whose contract is set to expire, is tipped to leave Barcelona at the end of the season amid strong links to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain and Premier League giants Manchester City.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner could be lured to the United States, where Beckham co-owns Inter Miami.

 

ROUND-UP

- According to The Sun, Manchester United are battling Barca and Real Madrid to sign Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde. United are reportedly determined to bolster their defence and Kounde has emerged as a key target.

Liverpool have made Torino defender Bremer their top transfer target at the end of the season, reports the Mirror. Despite the January arrivals of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, Liverpool still want to strengthen their defence.

- Spanish journalist Siro Lopez says Sergio Ramos has made his decision to leave Madrid. It comes as the likes of United, PSG, Juventus and Chelsea eye the superstar Madrid captain on a free transfer.

Madrid are interested in Real Betis midfielder Nabil Fekir, reports Estadio Deportivo. Inter, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Napoli are also believed to be eyeing the Frenchman.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman praised the game-changing impact of Lionel Messi, who came off the bench to inspire a 3-2 LaLiga victory over Real Betis.

Messi was a shining light for Barcelona after being named among the substitutes, scoring an equaliser before unlocking Betis' defence with a sublime pass on Sunday.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner scored just 136 seconds following his introduction – his fastest goal as a substitute for Barca in LaLiga.

Trincao struck the 87th-minute winner for Barca, who are seven points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid, though the latter have two games in hand.

Koeman saluted superstar captain Messi post-match, telling reporters: "I always talk to the players and I express to them my ideas.

"I spoke to Lionel Messi yesterday about whether he was happy with having a rest and that if we needed him during the game, I was going to bring him on.

"That's what ended up happening. We were losing 1-0 and just a few minutes after coming on to the pitch he completely changed the game.

"He scored the equaliser and then added a lot to our play in the second half."

Messi – tipped to leave Barca amid strong links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City – has scored six goals in his past seven LaLiga games playing from the bench.

Koeman's Barcelona have won their past nine games away from home in all competitions – the third best streak ever for the Spanish giants after 13 in 2008-09 under Pep Guardiola and 10 in 2014-15 under Luis Enrique. Barcelona claimed LaLiga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League in those seasons.

Ronald Koeman was delighted with the character shown in Barcelona's victory over Real Betis but recognises his team must continue to prove their winning mentality.

Barca made it six away wins on the bounce in LaLiga as Trincao's late strike secured a 3-2 victory over Betis on Sunday.

Borja Iglesias' first-half tap-in put Betis ahead, but Lionel Messi scored 136 seconds after his introduction from the bench – his fastest goal as a Barca substitute – to restore parity before Victor Ruiz turned into his own net.

Ruiz atoned with a fine header to make it 2-2, yet Trincao, another visiting sub, had the final say to lift Barca back into second place in LaLiga.

"We must highlight the mentality of the team; in a tough game we have won for quality and for having an important character," Koeman told reporters.

"For me, the first half was not very good. We needed more to open up Betis when we had the ball. When we lost balls, we reacted late. I have not seen a team with much spark in the first half.

"The Copa del Rey [which Barca played in on Wednesday] is a trophy where we are in the semi-finals. It is the shortest way to win something.

"It is important, but we are Barca. You have to show mentality in any game in any competition."

Trincao's strike, which took a slight deflection on its way into the top corner, was the 21-year-old's first LaLiga goal.

However, the winger insisted the most important factor for him was helping Barca to secure the points.

"I didn't need to score, just do my job. You have to help. I'm very happy for the team and the victory," said Trincao, who became the fifth Portuguese player to score for Barca since the turn of the century, after Deco (13 goals), Andre Gomes (three), Nelson Semedo (two) and Ricardo Quaresma (one).

"We changed our attitude in the second half. It was the most important thing for the victory. We want to win everything and we are going to do everything possible to win.

"The spirit of my team-mates helps me a lot. They have all congratulated me for the goal."

Barca have now won their past nine away games in all competitions, the third-best streak ever for the club after 13 in 2008-09 and 10 in the 2014-15 campaign.

They sit seven points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid, although the gap will be back at 10 points should Diego Simeone's team overcome Celta Vigo on Monday.

Lionel Messi woke up a sleepy Barcelona and Trincao fired a brilliant late winner as Ronald Koeman's side snatched a 3-2 victory at Real Betis. 

Club captain Messi began Sunday's game as a substitute, taking a rare rest as Barcelona began with a front three of Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite. 

But with Barcelona trailing after Borja Iglesias struck in the first half, Koeman called on his deadliest weapon and he duly delivered, scoring a fine equaliser before playing a sublime pass to unlock the Betis defence for a second time. 

Victor Ruiz put the ball into his own net from Jordi Alba's cross as Barcelona went ahead, before making amends at the other end of the pitch to head Betis level at 2-2 in the 75th minute, but Trincao struck a terrific 87th-minute winner, his shot clipping the underside of the bar as it sailed past Joel Robles.

Ronald Koeman does not agree with Gerard Pique's claim that referees favour Real Madrid over other LaLiga sides.

Pique this week quoted a former referee who, according to the Barcelona defender, said 85 per cent of officials in Spain's top flight were from Madrid.

In an interview with Post United, Pique said: "How are they not going to whistle in favour of Real Madrid? Even unconsciously, how are they not going to give more for one side than the other?"

Pique added last season, when Madrid won the title, was "the most absurd refereeing experience ever".

En route to the championship in 2019-20, Zinedine Zidane's side earned a joint-high 11 penalties and conceded a joint-low two.

But Koeman disagrees with his centre-back, who reportedly could be sanctioned for his comments, insisting the league's referees are honest.

"Those are [Pique's] words. I can only comment on this year, not on previous seasons," Koeman told reporters.

"There are decisions in which we have had no luck, but I don't think they are against us. They are decisions of the referee and also VAR.

"I always think that the attitudes of the referees are honest. They give what they see and are not in favour of any team."

The numbers have changed this term as Madrid have received a joint-low 37 cards (36 yellow, one red) but only Cadiz (none) and Huesca (one) have won fewer than their two penalties.

The defending champions have also conceded a joint-high seven spot-kicks heading into this weekend.

Barca have been shown 38 cards, won five penalties and given away two.

Koeman was speaking ahead of Sunday's trip to Real Betis, which follows hot on the heels of Barca playing 120 minutes against Granada in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday.

Victory after extra time in that match set up a double-header with Sevilla in the semi-finals, adding to an already packed schedule.

Koeman feels the calendar is "killing the players" and pleaded for help from competition organisers.

"It is difficult," he said. "The number of games that the big teams have, with three competitions, on top of the COVID situation, makes everything more difficult.

"You have to talk with the players to see how they are physically, their feelings. Sometimes you have to give someone a rest to be able to have everyone in the best condition.

"If we count tomorrow's game and Wednesday's, there are 12 games in a row, of which 11 are away from home. And that's playing at 21:00, coming home at 03:00 in the morning. It is difficult for the players to be able to play all the time. We need help.

"I hope that one day UEFA or LaLiga will think about the number of games and what this does to the players. It is not normal. The games we've had to play, the trips, the schedules, playing the Supercopa between four teams, in my opinion, is a lot.

"Each coach has his opinion about the fixture schedule that the players have to go through. I think this has to stop, it's killing the players. We will have many injuries as a result of this. It is impossible.

"Hopefully one day they will make a decision to help the players with their fitness."

Ronald Koeman has reiterated his desire for Lionel Messi to stay at Barcelona, although he once again acknowledged it is the player who will make the final decision.

Messi wanted to leave Barca last year but stayed on to see out the final year of his contract, details of which were recently leaked to the Spanish press.

The revelation of Messi's earnings – potentially worth in excess of €555million over the course of four years – came as Barca's debts reportedly rose above €1.1billion, with the coronavirus pandemic dealing a huge blow to the club's finances.

Despite the speculation surrounding his future, Messi has continued to perform for Barca, scoring 16 goals across all competitions this season.

He missed two games due to suspension in January but returned to score against Rayo Vallecano in the Copa del Rey, followed by the opener in Barca's most recent LaLiga match, a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Koeman said in midweek that he still hoped Messi would eventually choose to remain at Barca and extend his contract, though the coach conceded he was not confident of that happening.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's game with Real Betis, the former Netherlands boss again stressed Messi's future is in his own hands.

"I said the other day: I think there's one person that can decide his future and that is Leo Messi himself," Koeman told a news conference.

"Us as a club and me as a manager, of course, I would like that he stays here for many more years and we can try to make him feel good, make sure he's happy, because if he's happy, like he is this season, he gives us a lot of quality, which we need.

"He is a player with incredible talent and, on top of that, I think his morale is also very high at the moment; he's got good energy and he helps us a lot. The future is in his hands."

Messi has created 14 goalscoring chances following a ball carry (moving with the ball five or more metres) in LaLiga this season – more than any other player – although he has failed to assist in this way. 

The 33-year-old has an exceptional record against Betis, having had a direct hand in 31 goals in 21 LaLiga appearances against the Andalusian club, scoring 21 times and providing 10 assists, while he has either scored or assisted on each of his past five league visits to Benito Villamarin.

Messi is still the main man at Barca, but Antoine Griezmann has finally rediscovered the form which earned him his big-money move from Atletico Madrid.

Griezmann scored twice and set up two more as Barca laboured to a 5-3 extra-time victory over Granada in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, a result which Koeman celebrated passionately on the touchline.

"I remember that I called him when I signed for Barcelona," Koeman said of Griezmann, who ranks fifth in the Blaugrana squad for league chances created this season (21) but leads the way on assists (four), while his goal tally of six is bettered only by Messi (12).

"I told him that I had a lot of confidence in him. I told him that he should know that he is important.

"Although he started without effectiveness, he has recovered. I have never doubted him. Besides, he is also his own critic.

"You can't ask for more from Griezmann, he's very important to us.

"I can't deny that the other day I was very happy after the game. I don't know for how long. Today it's sunny and tomorrow it may rain.

"I really liked the game the other day, but tomorrow is another game. We have to prove ourselves yet again that we are on the right track."

Barcelona have been drawn away to Granada in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.

Ronald Koeman's team fought back to defeat second-tier Rayo Vallecano 2-1 on Wednesday, earning their place in the last eight after a major scare.

Barca will now have to face a LaLiga team in Granada, a side they defeated 4-0 at Los Carmenes earlier this month.  

Sevilla, who have not won the competition since 2010, will play away to Almeria, the last team from outside the top flight left in the tournament.

Real Betis will take on Athletic Bilbao, who are yet to play Real Sociedad in the final of last season's Copa, while the other match will see Levante host Villarreal.

Ties will be played across next week from Tuesday to Thursday, with Barca favourites to win it after Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid were eliminated against lower-league opposition.

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.

Liverpool are reportedly interested in Sergio Ramos, while Real Madrid have a successor for Zinedine Zidane lined up.

Premier League champions Liverpool are linked with centre-backs due to long-term injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.

And Ramos is apparently a target.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL INTERESTED IN RAMOS

Liverpool are interested in Real Madrid defender Ramos, according to El Chiringuito.

The 34-year-old's future at Madrid is uncertain with his contract expiring at the end of the season.

Also at Liverpool, Fabrizio Romano reports they are yet to open talks to sign Lille defender Sven Botman.

 

ROUND-UP

- Zidane was under pressure at Real Madrid earlier in the season, and the LaLiga giants have his replacement in mind. AS reports Raul – who is in charge of Real Madrid Castilla – is seen as the natural heir to the Frenchman.

Christian Eriksen is expected to leave Inter, but just where to remains to be seen. CalcioMercato reports the Serie A giants are yet to receive an offer for the midfielder, who has been linked to Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal.

- With Diego Costa having departed, Atletico Madrid are said to be looking for another forward. The Daily Mail reports Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik is at the top of their list, while Espanyol's Raul de Tomas and Real Betis' Loren Moron are of interest.

Manchester City are linked to Barcelona star Lionel Messi, but they may have a younger version to target. talkSPORT reports the Premier League club are plotting a move for 17-year-old Estudiantes winger Dario Sarmiento, who has been dubbed "mini Messi".

- Sergio Romero looks set to leave Manchester United. The Manchester Evening News reports the goalkeeper has bid farewell to his team-mates ahead of an expected move to Boca Juniors.

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