Zinedine Zidane has sympathy with sacked Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde but does not expect Real Madrid's Clasico rivals to be any less of a threat under Quique Setien.

Barca opted to part ways with Valverde after their Supercopa de Espana semi-final exit at the hands of Atletico Madrid, despite winning LaLiga in each of the former Athletic Bilbao coach's two full seasons at the helm.

This time around the Blaugrana are level on points at the summit with Madrid, who claimed Supercopa glory with a penalty shoot-out triumph against Atleti.

"I'm sorry for him, first of all. That's all I can really say," Madrid manager Zidane told a news conference.

"It's not a great situation but he's a coach who's always shown that he's very good. I've got a great deal of admiration for him

"Each club and each situation is different. Each coach knows what they’re doing and where they're at. They know what the situation is at a big club.

"If we lose two games I'm going to get criticised as well. That happened not too long ago. I know where I am and what the situation is.

"We can’t always play well and win, so it is difficult. But what we try to do is give 100 per cent. It's the same for the coach at Barcelona, we all try and do our best and then you people can go off and talk about whatever you want.

"Things are never going to change, but I'm sorry about Valverde losing his job."

Setien does not have a major honour to his name in his coaching career but there is excitement over how his all-action, high-pressing style will work at Camp Nou.

"I expect them to be the same as always. Barcelona will always compete with all the coaches they have. Nothing is going to change," Zidane said.

"They’re going to do their work and we're going to do ours. Things will always be the same. We’ll always have the same rivalry."

Madrid welcome Sevilla and Julen Lopetegui to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, somewhat fittingly at a time when a high-profile sacking is dominating the news agenda.

Lopetegui did not last until November in the 2018-19 season after he succeeded Zidane at the end of the Frenchman's first spell as Los Blancos' boss.

"I don’t have to give any explanations about any of that," Zidane shot back when asked why he and Lopetegui had vastly different records with largely the same squad.

"You have to live every different situation, do what you do.

"He did what he wanted to do here. He's a good coach, he's always proven that – both before and after Real Madrid

"But I've got nothing to say about his period here at Real Madrid. What I can say is he's a good coach. He's proven that again this season."

Andres Iniesta says the prospect of taking on a joint coaching role with Xavi at Barcelona "doesn't sound too bad".

Former midfielder Xavi was one of the candidates to take over from Ernesto Valverde, who was sacked as head coach following the 3-2 Supercopa de Espana semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid.

The Al Sadd boss confirmed he held talks with his old club but turned down their offer as he considered it too early in his coaching career.

Quique Setien has since been installed on a two-and-a-half-year deal, but it remains widely expected that Xavi will return to Camp Nou in future to take charge of the first team.

Iniesta, whose midfield partnership with Xavi was a cornerstone of one of Barca's greatest eras, likes the idea of reuniting with his old team-mate in the dug-out.

"The Xavi-Iniesta tandem doesn't sound too bad, but it's not possible right now," he told El Partidazo.

"I think Xavi will sooner or later be at Barca, but I don't know at which moment."

Iniesta, who spent 22 years at Barca after joining as a youngster, thinks the idea of former stars coming back to the club can only be a positive.

When asked about the prospect of another ex-team-mate, Carles Puyol, taking up a role of sporting director, with Xavi as coach and Gerard Pique as president, Iniesta said: "I truly believe those players, one day, should be at the club, although I don't know in which role.

"Firstly, because of their abilities, and then because of what they represent and the good they can do at the club where they have spent their lives."

Iniesta caused a stir when he described Barca's conduct as "ugly" when Valverde was dismissed this month.

The former Spain star has moved to clarify his comments, saying: "People who know me know it's very difficult for me to criticise the way Barcelona do or don't do things. Maybe the word 'ugly' is strong, or everyone can use it to say I've given a bit of attention to Barca, as I read, but it's not like that at all.

"If you like, take away the word 'ugly' for any other. What I believe is that the manner wasn't correct - even [president Josep Maria] Bartomeu recognised that. That was just one way of saying it."

Iniesta, who confirmed he spoke with Valverde following the news, now hopes to see Setien enjoy success with his commitment to possession-based, attacking football.

"I've spoken with him [Setien] one time," said the Vissel Kobe man. "He had long since been tipped to coach Barcelona.

"I think he's a coach, and everyone agrees with this, who has a way of understanding and watching football with a lot of possession, and who likes to play well and attack.

"I believe, and I hope, he can have a great period." 

Manchester United will reportedly need to improve their offer to Sporting CP if they are to land Bruno Fernandes.

Fernandes, 25, is linked with a January move to Old Trafford, but it seems talks are ongoing between the clubs.

The Premier League outfit will need to raise their offer to land Fernandes, with some distance seemingly still between the sides.

 

TOP STORY – SPORTING WANT €65M FROM MAN UTD FOR FERNANDES

Sporting want £55.4million (€65m) from Manchester United for Fernandes, according to TVI 24.

The report says United are offering £42.6m (€50m) plus bonuses for the midfielder.

With Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba injured, United are desperate to strengthen in midfield this month.

 

ROUND-UP

- Christian Eriksen could be nearing a move to Inter. The Tottenham midfielder's agent Martin Schoots had dinner with Inter chief executive Giuseppe Marotta on Thursday, according to CalcioMercato.

- Tottenham must continue their search if they are to replace the injured Harry Kane this month. The Sun reports a possible move from Milan to Spurs for Krzysztof Piatek appears over and Tottenham are now looking at Porto forward Ze Luis or Napoli's Fernando Llorente, who left the club at the end of last season.

- Lille midfielder Boubakary Soumare is deciding between Manchester United and Chelsea, according to Sky Sports, although no move is expected until after the Ligue 1 club face Paris Saint-Germain on January 26.

- Staying at Old Trafford and Manchester United will be offered Paris Saint-Germain forward Edinson Cavani for free at season's end, according to the Manchester Evening News.

- West Ham's bid to sign Ross Barkley is not over yet. The Mirror reports the club will not give up on trying to land the Chelsea midfielder, who has made just seven Premier League appearances this season.

- Arda Turan remains contracted to Barcelona, but the midfielder knows where he wants to go next. The Turkey international is interested in signing with Boca Juniors, according to Sport, after terminating his loan agreement with Istanbul Basaksehir earlier this month.

Lautaro Martinez is "very happy" at Inter despite his form this season prompting reported interest from across Europe.

Argentina striker Martinez scored his 15th goal of the campaign during Inter's 1-1 draw against Atalanta at the weekend.

The 22-year-old's partnership in attack with Romelu Lukaku has established the Nerazzurri as serious title challengers to Juventus in Serie A.

His performances have also apparently caught the attention of Barcelona, who are facing up to four months without Luis Suarez, while it has also been claimed Manchester City view Martinez as a suitable long-term heir to their all-time record goalscorer Sergio Aguero.

"I'm very happy here at Inter, people love me and I love them," Martinez told TyC Sports.

"If you talk about me [as a transfer target] it is because I do my job well. I must continue on this path.

"I am very calm, I live day to day and I am happy and comfortable here."

Conte took charge of Inter before the start of this season and Martinez credits the former Juve and Chelsea boss as a driving force behind his rapid progress.

“Many things have changed since he came in," Martinez said. "He has a special way of doing things and has taught us so much from his first day in charge.

"He has convinced us to all give our best and the results are there for all to see.

“I have had to adapt to a new culture in another country and learn another language. I played little under the previous manager, but under Conte I have grown a lot and I am enjoying how things are going."

Conte secured the capture of Lukaku from Manchester United, a player he tried to sign at Chelsea, and Martinez has been a huge beneficiary of the head coach getting his man.

"Lukaku helps me a lot, he is a player who – on and off the field – is very important to me," Martinez said of the Belgium international, who has 18 goals in all competitions this term.

"He is a very good person who helps me out. I am very happy to have met him.”

Barcelona great Xavi says he rejected an offer from the club to succeed Ernesto Valverde as head coach.

Valverde was sacked in the wake of the 3-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals of the inaugural expanded Supercopa de Espana this month.

Xavi was reportedly on a shortlist of candidates put forward to the Barca board before former Real Betis boss Quique Setien was appointed on a two-and-a-half-year deal.

The Al Sadd coach has confirmed he was made a formal offer by technical secretary Eric Abidal and CEO Oscar Grau but says he turned it down as it would be "too soon" for him to take charge at Camp Nou.

"Yes, I received an offer from Barcelona in the presence of Eric Abidal and Oscar Grau, but I didn't accept it," he told reporters on Thursday.

"It's too soon to coach Barcelona, but it will continue to be my dream to be Barcelona coach in the future."

Xavi is said to have met three times with Abidal and Grau in Doha last weekend, and he admits the uncertainty made it difficult to focus on his job at Al Sadd.

However, the former Spain star insists he is now fully focused ahead of Friday's Qatar Cup final against Al Duhail.

"I told my family first and then the Al Sadd players because they were following the topic," he said when asked who first learned he had turned down Barca's approach.

"I wasn't in my best position during the three days, but I'm now totally focused on Al Sadd."

Mauricio Pochettino has suggested his next coaching position will be in Spain or England as LaLiga and the Premier League are "the two best leagues in the world".

The former Tottenham boss, who was sacked in November and replaced by Jose Mourinho, was linked with the Barcelona job before Quique Setien was named Ernesto Valverde's successor.

Pochettino has been heavily linked with Manchester United during what has been an inconsistent season for the Red Devils under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The 47-year-old certainly appears prepared to take another job in England's top flight, although he also admires LaLiga, where he began his senior coaching career with Espanyol.

He said at a LaLiga TV event: "For me, I was so lucky to start my career as a manager at Espanyol in Barcelona and then to come to the Premier League to learn a different language and culture and I am a better person today.

"I have more knowledge and had a great experience. The Premier League is the Premier League. Football was born here in England but I think LaLiga has amazing football and amazing coaches."

He added: "England and Spain are the two best leagues in the world."

Pochettino is reported to have been approached about the Barcelona job despite insisting previously he could never take charge at Camp Nou due to his ties with city rivals Espanyol.

With Setien now installed on a contract until June 2022, Pochettino admits he will be very interested to follow the former Real Betis coach's efforts.

"Barcelona, of course, are one of the greatest teams in the world. Of course, now with the new manager, everyone is expecting him to continue the same philosophy," he said.

"Valverde did a fantastic job in LaLiga and with Barcelona and it's a massive challenge for Quique Setien. He showed unbelievable love for Johan Cruyff and the style of football of Barcelona.

"I think it's a great opportunity for him to live his dream and it's so amazing to follow what's going to happen."

Montreal Impact head coach Thierry Henry has returned to his former club Barcelona to sign Canada international Ballou Tabla on permanent terms.

Winger Tabla left the Impact as an 18-year-old to join Barcelona in January 2018, becoming a member of the club's B team.

Tabla departs after two years of a three-year deal, however, having been unable to make a first-team breakthrough at Camp Nou.

The 20-year-old had a €25million release clause in his contract, to protect Barcelona in the event he developed at a rapid rate.

Such a rise to stardom did not materialise, and there was no mention of any fee in a statement from Montreal that said Tabla had returned to them on a two-year contract, with two option years.

Impact sporting director Olivier Renard said: "We are happy to have Ballou back with us following this transfer. The talent of this young Quebecer was never put into question. Now it's up to him to do everything and bounce back."

Tabla played 30 games for Barcelona B and had a loan spell with Albacete before joining Montreal on a temporary basis last August, making four MLS appearances.

That return is now a full-time arrangement, with Tabla set the challenge of earning a regular place in Henry's team.

Jean-Clair Todibo has signed for Schalke on loan from Barcelona, with the Bundesliga club having the option to make the move permanent at the end of the season.

Barca signed centre-back Todibo from Toulouse in January 2019, but the Frenchman has played just four times in LaLiga.

He will now spend the rest of 2019-20 on loan at Schalke, who have paid Barca a €1.5million loan fee and will cover Todibo's wages for the remainder of the campaign.

Schalke will also be able to make the deal permanent should Todibo impress, with Barca confirming a fee of €25m – plus €5m add-ons – has been agreed. 

Should Schalke decide to sign Todibo, Barca – who on Monday replaced head coach Ernesto Valverde with Quique Setien – have included a buy-back clause of €50m, plus €10m in variables.

"We said during the training camp in Spain that we would only be active in the market if something opened up that would help us," Schalke coach David Wagner said.

"That's definitely the case for Jean-Clair, who is one of the best young central defenders in Europe. Since Benjamin Stambouli's recovery is taking a little longer than we had all hoped, it makes sense to bring in another central defender. He can also play in defensive midfield.

"We will all do our best to support him in the development of his clear potential. We’re looking forward to having him."

Todibo was also linked with Serie A side Milan, with negotiations reportedly collapsing due to Barca's insistence that a buy-back option was included.

Schalke sit fifth in the Bundesliga and face second-place Borussia Monchengladbach at home on Friday.

Quique Setien's first LaLiga Clasico as Barcelona boss has been handed a Sunday evening slot on March 1.

The visit to Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium could be a pivotal moment in the race for the LaLiga title, and the kick-off at 21:00 local time should allow both sides to recover from midweek efforts in the Champions League.

Barcelona have an away clash against Napoli on Tuesday, February 25, and Madrid are at home to Manchester City the following night.

LaLiga president Javier Tebas made the Clasico announcement at an event in London on Wednesday, with the match timing picked to ensure maximum global exposure on television.

Barcelona lead the way in LaLiga, but they are only ahead of Madrid on goal difference, with both sides sitting on 40 points from 19 matches.

Tebas said: "It will be 8pm UK time and I think there aren't any other matches at this time so it will be a great slot. We want to be as visible as possible and we are getting there."

The season's first Clasico at Camp Nou was postponed from October because of concerns about civil unrest, stemming from pro-independence activists protesting against the jailing of nine Catalan politicians.

It eventually went ahead on December 18 and finished in a 0-0 draw.

The sacking of Ernesto Valverde and appointment of Setien - a former Atletico Madrid player - as his successor at Barcelona on Monday means there will be a different face in the opposite dugout to Zinedine Zidane for the second clash of Spain's biggest clubs in the 2019-20 campaign.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has confirmed there is no termination clause for the end of this season in new head coach Quique Setien's deal.

Setien penned a two-and-a-half-year contract this week to replace Ernesto Valverde in the Camp Nou hot seat.

Speaking to Sport, Bartomeu confirmed there was a clause in the 61-year-old's contract that relates to Barca's next presidential elections in 2021, but no mechanism to release Setien if the remainder of this campaign does not go as planned.

"No, he has a contract for two-and-a-half years and can be released in 2021," he said.

"Quique Setien has signed for two-and-a-half seasons and I have already explained that there are elections in 2021 and [at that time] there will be a clause there according to which, if the new president wants to change the coach, he can change Quique Setien's contract.

"But he has signed for two-and-a-half seasons."

As he did at the new coach's welcome news conference on Tuesday, Bartomeu offered a ringing endorsement of Setien's playing style.

"Quique Setien is a coach who has a clear philosophy of the game and a clear concept of football," he said.

"He has demonstrated for years in the teams he has trained that he likes the good game, especially he likes the game that we [at Barcelona] like to watch, and that's why he has been chosen." 

Someone who looks to have already been chosen by Setien himself is 20-year-old midfielder Riqui Puig, who was left out of the Barca B squad to face Badalona on Wednesday.

Puig made a pair of LaLiga starts towards the end of last season and is in contention alongside fellow La Masia graduates Ansu Fati and Carles Perez for Sunday's top-flight match against Granada.

Barcelona talent Riqui Puig is absent from the B team's squad to face Badalona, hinting at potential imminent involvement with the first team following Quique Setien's arrival as head coach.

Setien was presented as Ernesto Valverde's successor at Barca on Tuesday following the former's dismissal the previous day after the club's board had become frustrated.

Renowned for his entertaining brand of football, former Real Betis boss Setien was brought in due to his ideologies lining up closely with those of Barca.

Setien is also known for his faith in youth, utilising the academies of Betis and Las Palmas to good effect in his past two jobs, seemingly marking himself out as an ideal fit for Barca and their famed La Masia development school.

Some supporters had been irked by Valverde's reluctance to give the technically gifted Puig, 20, more first-team opportunities at Camp Nou, with the much-vaunted youngster yet to make a LaLiga appearance this season.

But first-team involvement appears to be on the cards under Setien, with Puig's absence from Barca B's squad prompting suggestions he will be involved with the senior side against Granada on Sunday, when Frenkie de Jong is suspended and Arthur (groin) is set to miss out. 

Puig was one of the young players to take part in the first training sessions of Setien's tenure, while the coach also made it abundantly clear in his presentation to the media that emerging talents will be given opportunities.

When asked about Puig on Tuesday, Setien said: "I don't know if you've followed my career, but this club has an extraordinary academy. While I don't know it in-depth, they [the biggest talents] will be training with us and participating.

"Those in the first team need to be clear; talent that's coming up will get the chances if they deserve them.

"I'll make a special effort to take care of the kids because you can always have a new kid coming through who adds energy to everything and that provides a boost to the squad, meaning those at the top don't relax.

"That's very important and it sends a message to the kids in the lower ranks. It's a message I always transmit. If they impress, earn their spot, they are perfectly able to play in the first team, that's clear."

Lionel Messi believes the "special duel" between him and Cristiano Ronaldo when the pair were on opposite sides of the Clasico rivalry will leave a lasting impression.

The Barcelona superstar went head-to-head with Ronaldo for almost a decade in LaLiga, where the two scored at an astonishing rate and practically assumed shared custody of the Ballon d'Or.

Debate rages over who the world's best player is, but a shortlist of two is almost universally accepted – it is either Messi or Ronaldo.

The Portugal forward has since departed for Juventus, but Messi ​– who won a record sixth Ballon d'Or in December – has fond memories of their long-running Spanish saga.

"The matches against Real always mean a lot, but when Cristiano was there they became much more special," said Messi.

"But it's a time that has passed now, that we have experienced. Now, we have to look ahead to the future.

"It was a special duel and it will remain [in people's minds] forever, because it lasted for many years and it is not easy to maintain such levels for a long time. 

"Plus, the teams we played in were also very demanding, both Real Madrid and Barca, the two best teams in the world.

"The sporting duel between us was very nice on a personal level and I think people had fun too, whether they were fans of Madrid or Barca, or even only football fans in general."

Barca this week appointed a new head coach, with Quique Setien replacing Ernesto Valverde, despite the club sitting joint-top of the table with Madrid.

The last Clasico clash ended 0-0 at Camp Nou in December, with Barca set to head to the Santiago Bernabeu in March.

 

Christian Eriksen appears set to get his move away from Tottenham.

Out of contract at the end of the season, Eriksen has been keen to test himself elsewhere after moving to Spurs in 2013.

Inter look poised to bring the Denmark playmaker to Milan…

 

TOP STORY – INTER IN NEGOTIATIONS WITH SPURS OVER ERIKSEN

Inter have offered €10million (£8.5m) plus bonuses to Tottenham after agreeing personal terms with Spurs star Eriksen, claims Sky Sport Italia.

With Inter head coach Antonio Conte keen for midfield reinforcements and soon-to-be free agent Eriksen eyeing a new club, a transfer is reportedly on the horizon.

However, The Mirror reports that Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain are ready to rival Inter for Eriksen.

 

ROUND-UP

- According to Sky Sports Germany, Paul Pogba is likely to leave Manchester United at the end of the season. Recovering from ankle surgery, Pogba continues to be linked with LaLiga giants Real Madrid and former club Juventus.

Manchester City will reject any bids for centre-back John Stones as Premier League rivals Arsenal circle, says the Daily Mail.

- Corriere dello Sport reports Matteo Politano and Leonardo Spinazzola are set to swap clubs. Inter winger Politano will join Roma, while full-back Spinazzola will move to the Nerazzurri.

- According to Gianluca Di Marzio and Tuttomercatoweb, PSV are prepared to pay €6m for Milan full-back Ricardo Rodriguez.

- Globoesporte says LaLiga champions Barcelona are close to signing Palmeiras midfielder Matheus Fernandes.

Lionel Messi has wished Ernesto Valverde luck for the future after the coach left Barcelona, calling his former boss a "top professional and top person."

Barca, following a defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana, decided to part ways with Valverde on Monday, with Quique Setien swiftly named as his replacement.

Former Athletic Bilbao boss Valverde took over Barca in 2017 and guided the club to successive LaLiga titles plus a Copa del Rey success.

However, a dramatic capitulation to Liverpool in last season's Champions League semi-finals, followed by a defeat to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final, put Valverde under scrutiny and, despite being top of LaLiga, Barca fired the coach after missing out on another title in the form of the Supercopa.

Messi, who scored 112 goals in all competitions under Valverde, has now given his thanks to the Spaniard, who the forward is confident will thrive in his next job.

"Thanks for everything, gaffer," Messi posted to his official Instagram account on Tuesday.

"I'm sure everything will go well for you wherever you go because, as well as being a top professional, you're also a top person. Good luck and a big hug."

Setien oversaw training on Tuesday before being presented to the media, with the former Real Betis coach taking charge of his first LaLiga match as Barca coach against Granada on Sunday.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu does not believe axed head coach Ernesto Valverde was treated unfairly despite admitting holding discussions with several prospective replacements while he was still in his post.

Barca unveiled ex-Real Betis boss Quique Setien as Valverde's successor on Tuesday, concluding a tumultuous few days at Camp Nou.

Valverde parted ways with the club amid mounting pressure on the back of last week's Supercopa de Espana defeat to Atletico Madrid, even though he won LaLiga in both his completed seasons at the helm and sat joint top alongside Real Madrid this time around.

"Last year there were a lot of requests for him to not continue and I personally always believed in him," Bartomeu said of Valverde, speaking alongside Setien at a news conference.

"I liked how he was as a person, as a coach, he had the confidence of the club. We decided to continue with him in this project.

"The only thing is, as I said before, in recent weeks there was a dynamic [that was] not very good, it wasn't new to him. It's a collective job – we spoke to find solutions and after speaking we decided a few days ago the best thing for a boost to the team was a change in coach, that allows us to handle the second half of the season on a high.

"We're doing well in the league and champions league, I like what Ernesto Valverde did a lot, but it was the moment to make the change for a boost.

"I want to thank Ernesto. He is a great person with great values. We're friends with him, we had a great relationship with him and a lot of respect for him."

News broke over the weekend that Barcelona sporting director Eric Abidal held talks with his old team-mate Xavi over replacing Valverde.

Xavi remains with Qatari club Al Sadd, although Bartomeu suggested Barca's search for a new coach went beyond the club great and Setien.

"Abidal has been in touch with everyone talking about future and plans and he will explain what's gone on, without names," he said.

"No names bar one has come up and been public, because that's not our style. He's been working to find coaches and speaking with them.

"He's brought Setien, who we like very much."

Abidal himself added: "I'm not going to just talk about Xavi. When it comes to taking decisions, the board knows that answers are needed. Every manager has his DNA and decisions. They're all different.

"Setien is here because we like his way of working and his style. It's something we like, and in football we know a lot can change, but we have full confidence in the coach and the staff.

"From what I've seen in first day of training, there's a lot of changes. I think we can reach our objectives with him. I respect all the coaches I spoke to, but we had to take a decision and I think the perfect coach for us is Setien."

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