Europe's top five leagues all conclude this week and there are still plenty of matters to be resolved – not least who will be crowned champions in Spain and France.

Every division has something riding on the final days of the season, whether it be top spot, European qualification, or relegation.

Ahead of what is set to be a dramatic conclusion to the Premier League, LaLiga, Ligue 1, Serie A and the Bundesliga campaigns, we look at the state of play in each league.

 

PREMIER LEAGUE

Manchester City wrapped up the Premier League title with three games to spare, making them the first team in the competition's history to win the title despite being as low as eighth on Christmas Day.

All three relegation places were also decided with three games remaining – a Premier League record – with Fulham joining Sheffield United and West Brom in dropping down a division.

That leaves just the European spots to fight for, and it is shaping up to be an entertaining end to the English top-flight season in that regard. Manchester United are guaranteed a top-four finish, but five other teams – Leicester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and West Ham – are in the mix for the two other Champions League berths with two rounds of games to go.

There is also the small matter of the Europa League places for the teams finishing in fifth and sixth, as well as a spot in the inaugural Europa Conference League, which goes to the team in seventh, meaning everyone from 10th-placed Leeds United to Leicester in third have something to play for. That includes Arsenal, who have not missed out on European football of some sort in 25 years.

LALIGA 

The Spanish title race appeared to take a dramatic twist on Sunday as Real Madrid leapfrogged Atletico Madrid at the summit for around 20 minutes. However, Atleti scored two late goals to beat Osasuna, meaning they are two points ahead of their city rivals heading into the final round of games.

Atleti, who have led the way at the top for 29 matchdays, now need to match Madrid's result against Villarreal when they travel to relegation-threatened Real Valladolid on the final day of the season. It is worth noting that Los Blancos have the superior head-to-head record, so a draw would not be enough for Atleti if Madrid win.

Barcelona are officially out of the title race, meanwhile, but they are assured of a top-four finish along with Sevilla. Real Sociedad and Real Betis occupy the Europa League spots, while Villarreal are in a Europa Conference League berth, though just one point separates the three teams so that could all yet change.

To complicate matters, Villarreal could still qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League final against Manchester United.

At the bottom end of the division, Eibar are already relegated and they will be joined by two of Valladolid, Elche or Huesca. Valladolid must beat Atletico in their final game to have a chance of staying up, while the onus is on Elche to better Huesca's result as they are level on points but have an inferior head-to-head record.

LIGUE 1

The Ligue 1 title battle is also going right down to the wire in a three-way dogfight. After a thrilling race that has lasted the course of the season, underdogs Lille lead heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain by one point with one matchday left.

Monaco have won seven of their previous eight games and are three points off leaders Lille, though they require both Les Dogues and PSG to slip up on the final day, as well as beating Lens. Should it come down to goal difference, PSG hold a big lead over their two title rivals.

Incredibly, PSG are still not yet technically assured of a Champions League place as Lyon in fourth are only three points worse off, although it would take a defeat for the reigning champions and victory for Lyon, plus a goal swing of 16, for them to miss out.

Monaco's opponents Lens, incidentally, also have plenty to play for at the weekend as they are sixth – enough for Europa Conference League qualification – but can still be caught by Rennes in seventh, while they could yet overtake Marseille in fifth if results go their way.

At the opposite end of the table, there may only be one spot left to be settled in the bottom three – Dijon and Nimes are both already down – but six teams are still very much in danger of the drop. Nantes occupy the relegation play-off spot, with Lorient, Brest and Strasbourg just a point better off, and Bordeaux and Reims only two points clear.

SERIE A

With Inter being crowned Scudetto winners for the first time in 11 years at the start of the month, the biggest storyline in Serie A regards Juventus' top-four fate. The dethroned champions, who had finished top nine years running before this season, are currently down in fifth.

Juve are one point behind Napoli and Milan in the two spots directly above them, while Atalanta are three points better off in second and have the better head-to-head record against the Bianconeri.

Andrea Pirlo's side are therefore in need of favours on the final day in what is poised to be a nail-biting finale in terms of those Champions League places. Lazio will finish sixth, so they are assured of Europa League football next term, while Roma hold a two-point advantage over Sassuolo in the Europa Conference League position.

Parma and Crotone are both down already and one of Benevento or Torino will join them, the latter currently three points outside of the relegation zone and with a game in hand to play on Benevento.

BUNDESLIGA

RB Leipzig provided Bayern Munich with some stern competition for a while, but the Bavarian giants' quality eventually told and they are Bundesliga champions for a ninth year running.

It's not only the title race that's done and dusted in Germany, in fact, as RB Leipzig are certain of second place, and both Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg will join them in the Champions League next season.

Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen, meanwhile, will finish in fifth and sixth respectively regardless of events later this week.

However, Union Berlin have work to do if they are to finish seventh for a place in the Europa Conference League play-offs as Borussia Monchengladbach are a point further back, while Stuttgart and Freiburg are two behind with a game to go.

Seven-time German champions Schalke will be competing in the second tier of German football next season, but Cologne and Werder Bremen are hanging on in there, sitting two and one point behind Arminia Bielefeld respectively in 15th place.

Diego Simeone said he knew Atletico Madrid had to win after the LaLiga leaders moved a step closer to the title after defeating Real Sociedad.

After Barcelona dropped points, Atletico could be within one victory of claiming their second league crown of Simeone's tenure following Wednesday's 2-1 win over Sociedad.

Yannick Carrasco and Angel Correa struck in the space of 12 first-half minutes to give Atletico a 2-0 lead inside half an hour in the Spanish capital midweek.

Carrasco has been involved in 14 LaLiga goals this season (six goals and eight assists), equalling his record in a same campaign in the competition (14 in 2016-17 – 10 goals, four assists).

La Real set up a grandstand finish through Igor Zubeldia but Atletico held on to move four points clear atop the table with two rounds remaining, though city rivals Real Madrid could move back within two by beating Granada on Thursday.

"We knew that we had to win," Atletico head coach Simeone told reporters. "We were ahead in the game against a team that were doing things well, especially away from home.

"The first half was pretty good, we took a 2-0 lead, we had enough chances to have a bigger advantage. Up until the 25th minute of the second half the game was open and at the end of the season winning is very important and then their goal happened as did those last few minutes.

"We were left with the feeling that we suffered in those last few minutes because of Sociedad's desire to try and get a draw."

This is the third time in history Atleti have reached 80 or more points after 36 games played in LaLiga (assuming three points per victory) after 2013-14 (88) and 2015-16 (85).

Atletico are unbeaten in their last 19 matches played on a Wednesday in LaLiga (W15 D4) since a defeat to Madrid in April 2012 (1-4).

"We need to rest. Clearly we're all in a season that has been very tough and that will end up being very tough indeed because of everything that has happened to us as a society," added Simeone. "We started too fast and you all know that and all teams have had to fight against that. We're no exception.

"We have two games ahead and we'll face them in the same way we have the others, game after game, knowing that on Sunday it will be a very important match for us, knowing it will be a very important game for what's to come in LaLiga."

Koke made his 500th appearance for Atleti in all competitions, becoming the second player to reach this figure in the history of the club after Adelardo Rodriguez (550).

"We have two games left, that's a whole world," Koke said. "The league is really tight these last five games, we've always said it. Everyone is dropping points, these games are finals for us, we won this one and on Sunday and we have another final we want to win.

"We're Atleti, if we weren't suffering, it wouldn't be us. Thanks to the fans who came here outside [the stadium] and those who can't. You need your fans to make that extra effort as we did in the last 10 minutes, we could hear them outside. We're grateful."

Atletico Madrid could be within one win of clinching their second LaLiga title of Diego Simeone's tenure after they beat Real Sociedad 2-1 in a gripping tussle on Wednesday.

With Barcelona dropping points this week, but fourth-placed Sevilla winning, Atleti responded with a performance worthy of champions at Wanda Metropolitano, though it came with a nervy finish.

Yannick Carrasco and Angel Correa got the goals to put them in control, striking in the space of 12 first-half minutes.

But Atleti failed to take the chances to make the scoreline more comfortable and, after Jan Oblak and the upright came to their rescue, La Real set up a grandstand finish through Igor Zubeldia.

Atleti ultimately hung on, however, meaning they will settle a dramatic title race in their favour by defeating Osasuna next time out, should Real Madrid fail to beat Granada on Thursday.

Luis Suarez curled just wide and Marcos Llorente was denied by Alex Remiro as Atleti started as they meant to go on, with the pressure telling in the 16th minute.

Llorente was the provider with a weighted cross to the back post where Carrasco, having beat La Real's offside trap, controlled it and prodded a finish through Remiro's legs.

It was 2-0 12 minutes later when Suarez played in Correa, who coolly found the bottom-left corner.

With little to lose, La Real hit back, forcing Oblak into two brilliant saves, the second a fingertip onto the post to deny Alexander Isak.

Wasteful finishing plagued Atleti's second-half display, with Carrasco and Suarez fortunate not to be made to pay for poor misses when Portu crashed an effort against the post, with Stefan Savic making a heroic block.

Atleti were denied a fifth clean sheet in the space of six games when Zubeldia bundled in from a corner with seven minutes remaining, yet Simeone's men had the grit to hold on and put the title within reach.

Real Madrid and Kylian Mbappe – the two parties have long been tipped to come together.

Mbappe is out of contract at Paris Saint-Germain in 2022 and no closer to renewing his deal.

Madrid are reportedly moving closer to prising the France international to the Spanish capital.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE POISED FOR MADRID MOVE?

Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe is edging closer to joining LaLiga giants Real Madrid, according to Diario AS.

Mbappe has long been tipped to swap PSG for Madrid, though the Ligue 1 holds continue to try to re-sign the World Cup-winning forward.

PSG's Mbappe is determined to win the Champions League as he eyes the Santiago Bernabeu.


 

ROUND-UP

- Le Parisien, though, claims PSG are holding out hope on teaming Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi with Mbappe and Neymar in Paris. Messi is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and he has been linked with PSG and Manchester City. Neymar has also been linked with a Barca return. However, Le Parisien reports PSG are prioritising a move for Messi while trying to retain Neymar and Mbappe.

Lautaro Martinez is on the verge of signing a new contract with Serie A champions Inter, says Gazzetta dello Sport. The Inter forward has been linked with Barca previously.

- Tuttosport reports star Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is a primary transfer target for Serie A rivals Juventus. Donnarumma is out of contract at the end of the season and the Italy international has not agreed fresh terms with Milan.

Borussia Dortmund will ask for less than €100million (£86m) to sell Jadon Sancho amid interest from United, Chelsea and Liverpool, says Fabrizio Romano.

- The Mirror says Liverpool are eyeing Roma star Lorenzo Pellegrini as incoming Giallorossi boss Jose Mourinho looks to overhaul the squad in the Italian capital. The front page of Thursday's Gazzetto dello Sport, meanwhile, claims Mourinho is looking to bring Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic and Madrid's Isco to Roma.

- Soon-to-be free agent and City star Sergio Aguero is dreaming of a Barcelona move, according to Romano. InterTottenham and Chelsea have also emerged as options for the veteran forward.

Maurizio Sarri is a candidate to take charge of Milan if Stefano Pioli fails to guide the Rossoneri into the Champions League, claims Gazzetta dello Sport. Sarri was reportedly set to join Roma before Mourinho's appointment.

- Rennes sensation Eduardo Camavinga, Sassuolo's Manuel Locatelli and Mikel Merino of Real Sociedad are on Barca's shortlist to replace Sergio Busquets, reports Mundo Deportivo.

Imanol Alguacil expressed his immense pride after Real Sociedad conquered Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao to win their first Copa del Rey title since 1987.

Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half penalty secured a 1-0 victory over Athletic on Saturday in what was the first ever final between the two great rivals in their current guises.

The rescheduled 2020 decider was played 350 days later than initially planned in Seville due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oyarzabal settled the first all-Basque Copa del Rey showpiece since 1927 on an emotional night for head coach Imanol and La Real.

"As a manager, you can imagine I am very proud," Imanol told reporters. "I have a great feeling.

"This week, my uncle died from COVID. We received so many messages during these two weeks from all over Gipuzcoa.

"The suffering of my family, there are so many things. When I left yesterday, I was crying after receiving a video from my family members.

"There so many feelings. I am very happy, super proud to be the manager of this Real Sociedad that have made history, as we said yesterday.

"It would not have been possible without the support of the fans. Thanks to everybody."

"There so many emotions," he added. "I was in the third division with almost half of this squad four or five years ago fighting around the stadiums of Vizcaya.

"You can't imagine the emotion I can feel in this moment for being able to make the fans happy."

Oyarzabal has scored 89.5 per cent of his penalties taken for La Real in all competitions – only Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos (18) among LaLiga players has scored more penalties than him since the beginning of the 2018-19 season across all competitions (17, same as Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi).

"It's an incredible day," said a tearful Oyarzabal post-match.

"You remember everybody, all the people who would have loved to be here, people who have left us. This is for everyone, my family, my friends. It means everything."

It was another case of so close but yet so far for Athletic, who finished runners-up in the Copa del Rey for the fifth consecutive time, having also fallen short in 1985, 2009, 2012 and 2015.

Athletic equalled Madrid (five from 1918 to 1933) as the team to lose most consecutive finals in the competition's history, though Marcelino's men have the opportunity to snap that streak when they face Barca in the 2021 decider on April 17.

"I am not disappointed, because I was proud of the players I coach before the game, and I continue so. But obviously I am sad," head coach Marcelino said. "Especially, because we haven't been ourselves.

"When you far for your version, this can happen, the opponent in a specific action with not much superiority, although deserved overall, they win a title. So, we have to congratulate Real [Sociedad]. We have to assess calmy what we have to improve because we have one more option in 15 days."

Real Sociedad have won their first Copa del Rey since 1987 after Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half penalty secured a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in what was the first ever final between the two great rivals in their current guises.

Played 350 days later than initially scheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic, La Cartuja in Seville played host to one of the most significant finals in the competition's history and La Real came out on top in the long-awaited encounter.

In what was the first all-Basque Copa del Rey showpiece since 1927, it was perhaps fitting that someone who has played for both teams was central to the match's major moment of contention, as Inigo Martinez was sent off for the concession of a penalty, only to be hauled back on following a VAR check.

The former La Real captain's blushes were not completely spared, however, as Oyarzabal – wearing Los Txuri-Urdin's armband – dispatched the spot kick.

While Athletic desperately sought a late equaliser, Marcelino Garcia Toral's men lacked the invention to force extra-time, but they will have another bite at the cherry on April 16 when they face Barcelona in the 2020-21 final.

Establishing any form of control proved difficult for either side in a frenetic opening half that was exacerbated by the downpour in Seville.

It was not until the 33rd minute that either goalkeeper was forced into necessary action, as Athletic centre-back Martinez let fly from distance and saw Alex Remiro tip over in spectacular fashion – both players featuring against the teams whose academies they graduated from.

Athletic survived a scare at the other end soon after, with Yeray Alvarez managing to cut out Andoni Gorosabel's right-wing cross as Alexander Isak waited for a simple finish.

Martinez avoided conceding a penalty soon after the restart, with his handball deemed to be just outside the 18-yard box.

He did not get so lucky just past the hour, though, when Martinez clumsily tripped Portu as he looked to latch on to a throughball.

The red card flashed in his direction was soon overturned on review, but Oyarzabal was not as forgiving, lashing an emphatic penalty past the helpless Unai Simon.

There proved to be no way back for an Athletic side, who were generally toothless throughout.

Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it is a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, with the grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explained to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It is little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

The phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will be in the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 last year but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe at the time, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As such, we are left with the slightly awkward prospect of two Copa finals in the space of two weeks. The 2019-20 edition will be played on Saturday, before this season's showpiece – which also includes Athletic, but against Barcelona – takes place 14 days later.

Sadly there will be no fans in La Cartuja, Seville, for the first final, but the occasion will be no less momentous.

Despite the obvious historic nature of it, coverage of the 2019-20 final wasn't entirely positive ahead of the initial date. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – was met with much praise on the one hand in its first season last term, as it gave smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but it simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez said, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agreed as he looked back on last year's coverage. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. But there was lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledged, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for the postponement of the final, he felt.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said.

"That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They were saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalled David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replied when asked if final qualification was a sign of things to come for La Real, who are fifth in LaLiga but 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Sevilla. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 37-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

Football throws up so many twists, turns and scenarios. Thanks to COVID-19, Spanish football will dish up something truly unique in April.

Two Copa del Rey finals will take place in the space of a fortnight after the 2020 decider was postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Athletic Bilbao front and centre.

Athletic will face rivals Real Sociedad in the mouthwatering rescheduled final on April 3 before going head-to-head with Lionel Messi's Barcelona in the 2021 showpiece on April 17.

Unfortunately, fans are barred from attending 'Derbi Vasco' in Seville, one of Spain's most famous rivalries as the Basque region is split between Athletic and La Real.

But it still represents a mammoth occasion in the inter-city rivalry, with Athletic – spearheaded by captain Iker Muniain, Inaki Williams and Raul Garcia – eyeing their first Copa del Rey title since 1983-84.

Benat was part of Athletic's run to the 2020 final, scoring in the first round and featuring in the last 16, before leaving San Mames for the A-League's newest team in Australia – Macarthur FC.

"Two finals are important, but Real Sociedad one is a derby and you always want to win whether it is a cup final or not," the 34-year-old, who spent seven years at Athletic before departing in 2020 but remains in contact with his former team-mates, told Stats Perform News.

"Derbies are special. But also, the Barcelona game will be nice and they will try to win."

Benat – a four-time Spain international having initially emerged from Athletic's youth team in 2005 – added: "The city of Bilbao comes along with the team in these days. The supporters are always there with Athletic. The truth is the entire city of Bilbao and the province of Bizkaia is full of red and white and they support a lot.

"The pity is they cannot attend to the game for the pandemic of COVID."

Benat's journey to Australia has seen him reunite with former Athletic team-mate Markel Susaeta in Sydney.

Susaeta spent the majority of his career at Athletic, where he made 507 appearances – only four players in the history of the club have managed more, Jose Angel Iribar (614), Jose Francisco Rojo (541), Joseba Etxeberria (514) and Andoni Iraola (510).

The 33-year-old Spanish winger wore the captain's armband and won the Supercopa de Espana in 2015 before departing his beloved Athletic in 2019, having first donned the iconic red and white stripes in 2007.

A three-time Copa del Rey finalist, Susaeta is no stranger to the Basque derby – he scored a brace in Athletic's 2-0 LaLiga win over La Real in 2012.

"It's clear that now is a big moment for Basque football," Susaeta, who will watch the final alongside Benat in the early hours of Saturday morning in Australia, said.

"Two finals is not normal, the situation is not normal. Athletic have a great opportunity to win a big title.

"In these matches, the emotion and intensity are very special. The wait is very long for the matches," Susaeta – part of the Athletic sides that were Copa del Rey runners-up in 2009, 2012 and 2015, said. "Athletic have been waiting for months. They are very excited. It's very difficult to control the emotions but it's a match all players want to play."

He added: "I think the derby of Bilbao and Basque country, it's a little bit more important that final. But there are two finals. I think the derby of Real Sociedad is more important.

"For Athletic, anyone can make the difference. Now they are playing well. In attack, they are creating more chances than before. They are in good condition for the finals."

Despite a change in the dugout, Athletic have already claimed silverware in 2020-21.

Marcelino replaced Gaizka Garitano in January, and he sensationally guided Athletic to a victory over Barca in the Supercopa de Espana final later that month.

Benat said: "Athletic were okay with Garitano, but they were not able to have a positive run to jump up in the table. And Marcelino has given extra confident to the players.

"The players trust him and you can see they gained confidence.

"I think Athletic have more experience lately. They have played some finals and they can have more experience, but I do think Athletic is a balanced team. They can play with or without ball and they can do great things with or without ball."

But one-time Spain international Susaeta, who reached the Europa League final with Los Leones under Marcelo Bielsa in 2012, is aware just how tough it is for Athletic to compete for trophies.

Athletic are a team who continue to play by their own rules. The Basque-only policy has captivated football and the sporting world, with Los Leones only picking players from one region since 1912.

Despite football's transformation by globalisation, Athletic remain defiant to their roots – only those born or raised in the Basque Country, which is made up of four provinces in north-east Spain and three in south-west France, eligible to represent the club. Rivals Real Sociedad operated a similar policy until 1989.

While it may come across as a disadvantage, limiting Athletic in the transfer market, the Spanish team have never been relegated from LaLiga while adhering to the famed policy. They have lost stars over the years, but the region continues to be a breeding ground for talent.

"It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world," Susaeta added. "To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Xabi Alonso's immediate future has been decided, with the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich star signing a new one-year contract with Real Sociedad.

Alonso first took up a coaching role at Madrid, but left Los Blancos to take over La Real's B team in 2019, penning a two-year deal.

In a season curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Alonso guided the reserve side to a fifth-placed finish in Segunda Division B.

This week, he was the subject of intense speculation linking him with a switch to Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach, whose current head coach Marco Rose will be joining Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season.

Rumours of the move being all but done proved to be premature, however, and though several clubs are said to have been interested in the former midfielder, Alonso has now agreed an extension with La Real until 2022.

"I want to continue to grow in this project and continue the final push for education at [La Real's training ground] Zubieta," Alonso told La Real's official website.

"We have more goals and the intention to challenge ourselves this year."

Reports suggest Gladbach, who exited the Champions League at the hands of Manchester City and sit a disappointing 10th in the Bundesliga, had already moved on from the possibility of drafting in Alonso.

Gladbach snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating Schalke 3-0 last time out. The run of defeats followed on from the club announcing Rose's impending departure on February 15.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said the race for the LaLiga title will be close following Sunday's demolition of Real Sociedad.

Lionel Messi made history as he led Barcelona to a 6-1 thrashing of Sociedad – a result that moved the Catalan giants within four points of leaders Atletico Madrid.

Messi – in his club-record 768th appearance in all competitions – scored twice, Sergino Dest had a brace, while Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele also struck for the visitors.

As Barca loom large with 10 matches remaining, Koeman told reporters: "I think the win sends an important message – but mostly to ourselves. It shows the team is comfortable and confident in its own abilities.

"Physically we're in a strong place as well and we've improved a lot but it doesn't mean today's result and performance will be replicated in future games.

"There's still a lot of games left to play in LaLiga but we are still behind Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have also improved.

"They are much stronger as well. It's going to be a tough fight until the last game of the season. Therefore, we have to keep going game by game."

Barcelona have won their last nine games away from home in LaLiga, keeping six clean sheets to level their third-best consecutive winning run on the road.

Koeman's Barca also scored six goals in an away game across all competitions for the first time since February 2017.

Messi, meanwhile, has now been involved in more goals (23) than any other player in the top five European leagues in 2021 – 16 goals and seven assists.

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman was delighted to mark his 58th birthday with an "incredible" 6-1 LaLiga thrashing of Real Sociedad.

The Catalans closed back to within four points of league leaders Atletico Madrid on Sunday with arguably their finest performance under Koeman.

Two goals each from Sergino Dest and Lionel Messi – who made a record 768th appearance for the club – and further strikes from Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele secured an emphatic victory, Barca's ninth in a row in the top flight.

Koeman, who was thrilled to see the goals spread out among four players and not only come from his captain, was proud at the way Barca made life so uncomfortable for their hosts.

"Without a doubt, it's the best present they could have given me," said Koeman. "I'm also happy for Griezmann and [Jordi] Alba, who've had their birthdays, and who played a great game.

"Scoring six goals at Real Sociedad is incredible. They tried to press us but, when they saw they couldn't, they took a step back.

"The first goal made us very calm and the second was almost decisive. We gave a really good impression of ourselves. We pressed really well without the ball and we were very effective.

"There's a long way to go. It won't be decided yet. Atletico are strong, but you saw against Alaves that it's not easy to win a game. Real Madrid are also in the fight; we can't forget them.

"We leave with a great result and a demonstration that we're going to go for everything. It's important that it's not just Messi scoring the goals because that makes it more difficult to defend against us."

Barca head into the international break trailing Atletico by 10 points after Diego Simeone's side claimed a hard-fought 1-0 win over Deportivo Alaves.

The Blaugrana look the sharpest of the big three in Spain at present and Koeman thinks they have improved significantly in recent weeks.

"I can't say we're not going to lose any game from here until the rest of the season, but it's clear that we're on a good path. We're very strong mentally and physically," he said.

"We've had many difficulties since the start of the season. We've changed things; any team needs time to learn. We've had some ups and downs in LaLiga, with defensive mistakes and a lack of effectiveness. But it's obvious the team has moved on."

Sergino Dest scored his first goals for Barcelona on a landmark outing for Lionel Messi as the Catalans thrashed Real Sociedad 6-1 to move back to within four points of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid.

The United States international netted in each half after Antoine Griezmann had broken the deadlock against his former club on Sunday.

Messi marked a club-record 768th appearance in all competitions with Barca's fourth and sixth goals either side of a superb fifth from Ousmane Dembele, capping a resounding victory for Ronald Koeman's men on the road, with Ander Barrenetxea grabbing the hosts' consolation. 

Barca's most impressive league win of the season lifted them back into second place behind Atleti, who earlier beat Deportivo Alaves, and means they head into the international break on an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

La Real posed an early threat on the break, Marc-Andre ter Stegen making a solid block to deny Alexander Isak, but they fell behind 37 minutes in courtesy of their former star.

Ousmane Dembele should have buried Jordi Alba's cross but, after Alex Remiro's save, Griezmann pounced to blast the ball home.

Barca doubled their lead two minutes before half-time, Dest producing a confident low finish after a clever turn and slide-rule pass from Messi, all after Ter Stegen had produced another fine stop following a loose goal kick.

Any hope of a Sociedad comeback was lost seven minutes into the second half, Alba surging into the box and crossing for Dest to prod in a surprise second goal.

There was less of a shock about the scorer of Barca's fourth, Messi lifting a composed finish over Remiro following a fine ball over the top from Sergio Busquets.

Dembele had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside but was not to be denied a second time, the France winger waltzing his way into the penalty area before drilling a low finish past Remiro.

The home side did at least get off the mark, substitute Barrenetxea powering an unstoppable effort beyond Ter Stegen from the edge of the box, but Messi completed the rout with a neat near-post finish after a fine move involving Alba and Riqui Puig.

What does it mean? LaLiga pauses as title race heats up

Barca have now won nine consecutive away games in LaLiga, the third best such streak in their history, while they are unbeaten in 10 league meetings with La Real.

More importantly, they have gone back into second in the table, two points above Real Madrid and four behind Atletico with 10 games remaining.

Imanol's men stay fifth, with a 10-point gap to the top four making their Champions League aspirations look a little forlorn.

Messi makes his mark on another momentous day

Dest may have been the unlikely goalscoring hero but Messi was again integral on the occasion of another career milestone.

His pass for the full-back's first goal was superb and his own finishes equally composed as he reached 23 in LaLiga for the season.

A Real concern

Sociedad had responded quite well to losing 4-0 at home to Manchester United a month ago, beating Alaves and Levante and drawing away against Real Madrid and the Red Devils, conceding just once in that run.

However, back-to-back league losses to Granada and Barca may well have put paid to their top-four aspirations and they will need to recharge during the break ahead of their Copa del Rey final. 

What's next?

Barca return from the international break at home to Real Valladolid on April 5. Sociedad, meanwhile, will now prepare for the rearranged 2020 Copa del Rey final with Athletic Bilbao.

Ronald Koeman hopes Lionel Messi can stay out of disciplinary trouble for the rest of the season as the Barcelona superstar teeters on the brink of suspension.

Barcelona have strung together a 17-game unbeaten run in LaLiga to transform their prospects, closing the gap on wobbling leaders Atletico Madrid to four points.

Messi, however, is just one yellow card away from a one-game ban, having been booked four times already, and an April 10 Clasico against Real Madrid is looming large.

It would suit Koeman if Messi could avoid any further bookings, but the coach will not let his team selections be ruled by the possibility of the Argentinian missing a future game.

Frenkie de Jong is in the same precarious position, and Koeman said: "We know they are one card away from the sanction, but it is what it is.

"I will not keep anyone in reserve. I hope they do not see a card. If they get it, another will play."

Messi has gone beyond 20 goals in LaLiga for a 13th consecutive season, the only player to do so in the competition's history, and he looks sure to start against Real Sociedad on Sunday.

It would be his 768th appearance for Barcelona, making him the outright all-time leader after drawing level with Xavi's total when he scored twice in a 4-1 win over Huesca on Monday,

With Barcelona already through to a Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, and on a charge in the league, talk has turned to the prospect of silverware.

Koeman's first season as head coach has been turbulent at times but could yet end in a domestic double.

The Dutchman is not interested in such discussions, though, saying on Saturday: "I don't like to talk about a double.

"This changes very quickly. Not long ago we were bad. We have to go game by game and we are four points behind and the calendar is very difficult.

"We have a final against a very difficult opponent. There is a long way to go to win things."

Koeman warned of the danger of any slip-up, saying that "each defeat can be expensive" as he complimented Real Sociedad and their "great coach" Imanol Alguacil.

One player Koeman has not been able to count on recently has been young forward Ansu Fati, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since November.

Barcelona hoped to have Fati back by around this stage of the season, but Koeman said of the 18-year-old Spain international: "He is taking longer than we expected.

"In a few weeks he will be training out on the field again, but he is young and strong. We are not in a hurry."

Ronald Koeman will head into important talks with new Barcelona president Joan Laporta during the international break.

Head coach Koeman declared that was the plan as he spoke on Saturday, a day ahead of the trip to face Real Sociedad in LaLiga.

The Dutchman's future was a major topic of discussion during the club elections, but there are a range of major issues that must be resolved between the dressing room and the boardroom.

Not least among those is the future of captain and record goalscorer Lionel Messi, whose contract expires in June, while the club's transfer budget and ambitions are also vital matters ahead of the close season.

Koeman was appointed last August on a two-year contract, and a failure to get past the last-16 stage in the Champions League was a major disappointment.

Barcelona remain in the hunt for domestic league and cup glory, though, and Koeman is keen to hear in the coming fortnight what Laporta is planning for the team's future.

Koeman said: "After tomorrow's game we have a break and we will have time to talk about the future of this team.

"We will take advantage of these two weeks to talk about players, signings and get to know each other. It is a time to be more together."

That was an answer given in response to the question of whether he was intending to meet with Laporta again, having already had brief talks.

Koeman said it was "important" to have an established figurehead at the club, after the reign of previous president Josep Maria Bartomeu dissolved amid considerable acrimony last October.

"It is reassuring to have someone who is the face of the club, but nothing changes for our work," Koeman said.

Laporta this week backed Koeman, saying: "Ronald, you have our confidence. We want to go back to that success story between Barca and the Champions League. This year we have to go for LaLiga and for the cup."

That simply confirmed what Koeman had already been told privately in the wake of the Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain.

"We must continue in this way so that the results reinforce it. Hopefully it will last for a long time."

The impending talks mean Sunday's clash at Anoeta is one that may take on extra significance for Koeman.

Should Barcelona win, that would ramp up pressure on leaders Atletico Madrid, who face Deportivo Alaves on Sunday. The closer they get to Atletico, the more impressive Koeman's leadership appears.

Barcelona are unbeaten in 17 games in LaLiga and have crept from mid-table to the point where they are just four points behind Atletico.

Koeman may privately ask Laporta about the prospects of signing Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund's free-scoring Norway international who has also been linked to Real Madrid.

But Haaland is not a player that Koeman is prepared to discuss in public, no matter how the question is put to him.

When asked on Saturday how he rated Haaland, and whether he was a player he would like to coach, Koeman pulled down the shutters, saying: "Out of respect I will not talk about a player who is not ours."

Marcelino lauded Athletic Bilbao, who will contest two Copa del Rey finals within a fortnight after overcoming Levante on Thursday.

Athletic saw off Levante 2-1 in extra time and 3-2 on aggregate to set up a showdown with LaLiga giants Barcelona in the Copa del Rey decider next month.

Supercopa de Espana champions after upstaging Barca in January, Athletic reached last season's Copa final but, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, they are yet to play it – the match against their rivals Real Sociedad set for April 3.

Athletic are now gearing up for two finals in the space of 14 days next month, with a clash against Barca scheduled for April 17.

"These players have made Athletic Club history and sometimes that only happens once in a lifetime," Athletic head coach Marcelino said.

"They had to make the most of the moment and they did so."

Alex Berenguer's deflected, extra-time winner sealed Athletic's progress to back-to-back finals and saw them equal Real Madrid on 39 appearances in Copa del Rey deciders.

It completed a turnaround for the 23-time Copa winners, with Raul Garcia's penalty having cancelled out Roger Marti's opener.

"We are going to take it step by step and enjoy today at least," Raul Garcia added.

"I am very happy because of all the work behind this and hopefully it will be a historic year.

"It's an honour to fight alongside this group of friends.

"We have a lot of confidence in each other, always help each other and that's what is giving us the results."

Athletic and Barca will play their ninth Copa final – the most-contested fixture in the competition's history.

In fact, Athletic will become in the first team to play two Copa del Rey deciders in the same month.

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