Gerard Pique urged Barcelona to continue fighting in LaLiga despite trailing leaders and rivals Real Madrid.

Having won back-to-back league titles, Barca are four points adrift of Madrid after a 4-1 thrashing of Villarreal on Sunday.

Pique called for his side to keep pushing ahead of hosting Espanyol in a derby clash on Wednesday.

"We don't like to be behind in the standings, but we will fight to turn the situation around, knowing how complicated it is," the Barca defender told Movistar.

"We will fight to the end."

After a Pau Torres own goal and Luis Suarez strike, Antoine Griezmann scored his first goal since February, and Ansu Fati sealed Barca's win late on.

Pique hopes Griezmann, who has netted 15 times this season, gains confidence from his goal.

"Playing in this way makes the three of them [Lionel Messi, Suarez and Griezmann] closer to the goal," he said.

"We feel more protected. In addition, Antoine's goal is very important so that he is confident."

Quique Setien praised Antoine Griezmann after the forward finally returned to the scoresheet in Barcelona's 4-1 LaLiga victory over Villarreal.

Griezmann netted his first goal since February to go with strikes from Luis Suarez and Ansu Fati after Pau Torres' own goal as Barca pulled back to within four points of leaders and rivals Real Madrid.

Setien was happy with what he saw from Griezmann, whose goal was his 15th in his first season at Barcelona.

"He has associated himself very well and has been gaining confidence," the Barcelona head coach said, via AS.

"I am very satisfied as I suppose he will be after the goal so beautiful that he has scored, reminded me of one of [Lionel] Messi's at [Real] Betis."

Setien praised Barca's performance as they claimed just their second win in five games.

"All teams are different. Today, we have had everything," he said.

Setien added: "Other teams like Atletico [Madrid] or Sevilla, firmer in defence created more problems for us. Perhaps they were stronger than this.

"This helps us a lot in confidence. We have pressed very well and we haven't allowed them to leave. We have made a very balanced match. I would have liked to be right before."

Meanwhile, there was further controversy in Real Madrid's win over Athletic Bilbao as another Sergio Ramos penalty saw Zinedine Zidane's men claim three points.

The spot-kick was awarded via the VAR and Setien said the system was becoming more confusing.

"I understand it [the VAR] less and less," he said.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu insisted Lionel Messi has always expressed a desire to retire at Camp Nou amid doubts over his future.

Messi is contracted to Barca until 2021 but a report emerged on Thursday claiming the six-time Ballon d'Or winner wants to leave next year.

The superstar captain put question marks over his future to one side on Sunday, producing a masterclass in Barca's 4-1 LaLiga rout of Villarreal.

Messi reached 19 LaLiga assists for the season – his best tally in Spain's top flight – and Bartomeu was asked about the 33-year-old post-match.

"I am not going to explain the details of what is happening every week. There are negotiations with many players," Bartomeu told Movistar.

"Messi has always expressed that he wants to end his career at Barcelona."

Bartomeu was also asked about under-fire head coach Quique Setien after Barca stayed within four points of bitter rivals Real Madrid with four games remaining.

Two-time defending champions Barca are on track to be dethroned by Madrid this season, with Setien reportedly set to be axed.

But Bartomeu said: "I know there are rumours. It is totally false.

"Quique Setien has the confidence of everyone, of the players, of the board, he is doing a great job.

"There are four games left and then we have the Champions League. We have important games to play this season."

Barca face bottom side Espanyol in Wednesday's LaLiga derby.

Barcelona reached 9,000 goals in all official competitions following their 4-1 rout of Villarreal in LaLiga on Sunday.

Barca celebrated the milestone thanks to teenage sensation Ansu Fati, who came off the bench and scored the team's fourth goal away to Villarreal.

The two-time reigning LaLiga champions, who are four points behind bitter rivals Real Madrid with four matches remaining, netted their first official goal in April 1909.

Just over 111 years later, Barca have scored their 9,000th goal – superstar captain and six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi contributing 630.

Of Barca's overall tally, 6,165 goals have been scored in LaLiga, followed by the Copa del Rey (1,474) and the Champions League (543).

Antoine Griezmann ended his goal drought with a stunning finish and Lionel Messi tormented Villarreal as Barcelona cruised to a 4-1 LaLiga victory on Sunday.

Barca's grip on the title had slipped with back-to-back draws and bitter rivals Real Madrid moved seven points clear at the top with a win at Athletic Bilbao earlier in the day, but the champions responded at Estadio de la Ceramica.

An early Pau Torres own goal put Barca in front and the mercurial Messi set up sensational strikes from Luis Suarez and Griezmann after the in-form Gerard Moreno equalised, with Ansu Fati adding a fourth late on.

Griezmann had gone eight games without a goal, but silenced his critics with a moment of class in a breathtaking attacking display from Barca, with Messi – who had a goal disallowed and hit the crossbar – starring at the end of a week in which his future has been the subject of more speculation.

Previously in-form Villarreal have still not beaten the Catalan giants since 2008 and their first defeat since the season restarted is a blow to their bid for a Champions League spot.

Barca made a blistering start and they were rewarded when Torres turned the ball into his own net just three minutes in with Griezmann waiting to pounce on Jordi Alba's cross behind him.

The Blaugrana were causing the home side all sorts of problems going forward but looked vulnerable on the break and Moreno levelled clinically against the run of play with 14 minutes played after Marc-Andre ter Stegen palmed away Santi Cazorla's strike.

Barca wasted little time in regaining the lead, though, Messi running from just inside the Villarreal half and beating two players before finding Suarez, who picked out the far corner with a sublime first-time finish from the edge of the penalty area.

Arturo Vidal and Suarez came close before Griezmann added a third just before half-time, lobbing Sergio Asenjo with a superb effort after Messi set him up with a cheeky backheel following another penetrating run.

The busy Asenjo denied Suarez and Vidal after the break and Messi had a goal chalked off after VAR ruled he had been offside before tucking in Sergi Roberto's cutback.

Fati came off the bench to put the icing on the cake, cutting in from the left to fire home and Messi rattled the crossbar with a free-kick before Asenjo superbly saved Martin Braithwaite's header following up.

  

What does it mean? Relief for Setien

Barca boss Quique Setien has come under fire, but his players appear to be behind him on the evidence of this performance.

On a day when it was revealed Xavi, linked with the Barca hotseat, will stay at Al-Sadd, the defending champions showed they will not give up their title without a fight with four games to play.

Messi magic, Griezmann shows his class

Griezmann has had a tough first season at Barca, but he showed what he is capable of with the finish of a player who is anything but short of confidence.

It was Messi who was the star of the show, though, yet again, slipping away from defenders with ease and laying on two goals with sheer brilliance and not looking like a man eager to leave Camp Nou.

Semedo all at sea

Barca full-back Nelson Semedo looked vulnerable defensively in the first half and was hooked off early in the second. Setien's men were too open at the back in the first half and Semedo was caught out too often.

What's next?

Barca host lowly Espanyol in a derby clash on Wednesday, with Villarreal facing a tricky trip to sixth-placed Getafe on the same evening.

Inter chief executive Giuseppe Marotta insists Lautaro Martinez has "not shown the slightest desire to leave" amid continued speculation Barcelona are interested in the Argentina international.

Martinez, who missed a penalty in Inter's 2-1 Serie A defeat to Bologna on Sunday, has been strongly tipped to make a move to Camp Nou at the end of the 2019-20 season.

Marotta was again asked about the forward prior to the defeat at San Siro and he reiterated Inter's desire to hold on to the 22-year-old.  

"Lautaro has not shown the slightest desire to leave," Marotta told DAZN.

"Aside from dates and deadlines, the clearest situation is that Inter do not want to sell their champions or interesting young talents. If the player were to ask to leave, we would evaluate that together, but so far, that request has not arrived.

"I believe that, being a young player, it can boost his career to continue playing for a while longer at Inter.

"Being an Inter player means being part of a big club and that ought to be reason enough for him to feel proud."

Marotta also dismissed rumours Inter have lodged a bid for Chelsea left-back Emerson Palmieri.

"I understand the many questions about transfer speculation, but I can say we have not had any contact or opened any negotiation for Emerson Palmieri.

"We are making evaluations for next season, but the most important issue remains this current campaign."

Zinedine Zidane feels his Real Madrid players deserve more respect as he is "tired" of their victories being attributed to refereeing decisions.

Madrid celebrated a seventh straight win on Sunday as they prevailed 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao, moving seven points clear of rivals Barcelona at the top of LaLiga.

However, their goal came courtesy of a Sergio Ramos penalty, awarded only after a VAR review highlighted Dani Garcia's trip on Marcelo.

Iker Muniain revealed his frustration at the call after the match, echoing comments from Barca's Gerard Pique, who suggested the officials were making it difficult to stop Madrid winning the title.

Zidane bristled at the accusations, though, telling a news conference: "I am tired of being told that we won because of the referees.

"This is not going to change. But the players deserve respect. Nothing is going to take away from our goal."

The head coach accepted Madrid were not at their best at San Mames, yet he pointed to a tough schedule which saw the leaders in action against Getafe as recently as Thursday.

"Our strength is what I like the most. We are showing our strength and our balance when we lose the ball," Zidane said. "We are doing very well.

"We have lacked brilliance in attack and we can improve, but most important is our defensive strength.

"[The problems in attack are due to] a little bit of everything. It can be something physical, too. We play every three days.

"But I don't think it is our own thing; I think it is something for all the teams. There is a lot of difference between the beginning and the end."

Talk is turning towards when Madrid might clinch the title, with just four games to play and Barca struggling for form.

But Zidane is not getting ahead of himself, adding: "Until it is mathematically won, we cannot relax and think about the title.

"We have shown our strength and our solidity, but I am not going to talk about it, even if you ask me every day, because I already have a lot of experience in my career, also as a player, and all the games are difficult.

"What I can say is that winning seven games out of seven is impressive."

Athletic Bilbao captain Iker Muniain became the latest player to question refereeing decisions involving Real Madrid after Sergio Ramos scored a decisive penalty at San Mames.

Madrid were made to work hard for a 1-0 victory on Sunday - their seventh win in a row - as Zinedine Zidane's men moved seven points clear at the top of the LaLiga table.

But Athletic were unhappy with the award of the spot-kick from which Ramos clinched the points, with Dani Garcia's trip on Marcelo spotted only after a VAR review.

Muniain was particularly frustrated as there was then no similar call made at the other end of the pitch when Ramos appeared to step on Raul Garcia's foot off the ball.

He said: "Raul Garcia has been stamped on and they haven't even reviewed it. That's the difference.

"We've seen the theme in these weeks since the restart - depending on which teams it is, some decisions are given.

"Everyone can draw their own conclusions."

Barcelona stalwart Gerard Pique has previously suggested it would be difficult to stop Madrid winning the title because decisions too often go their way.

Those claims prompted Ramos to respond: "People shouldn't be imagining things!"

Sergio Ramos revealed he enjoys the responsibility of taking crucial penalties for Real Madrid, although he claimed he would be playing tennis if he was looking for individual recognition.

For the second time in four days, Ramos grabbed the only goal from 12 yards for Madrid, this time to secure a 1-0 win at Athletic Bilbao at San Mames on Sunday.

A seventh straight victory moved the LaLiga leaders seven points clear, at least until Barcelona take on Villarreal later in the day.

Ramos is focused on ensuring Madrid keep winning, having been flawless since the season's restart – a period in which the captain has now scored five times, including from the spot against Getafe on Thursday.

"All I think about is the three points," he said. "But those moments of doubt [when taking penalties], that's when I feel most comfortable.

"I just wanted to take that responsibility. What matters most is the overall result. The only thing that matters is that it helps the team win."

On his personal exploits, Ramos added: "The individual recognition is second for me.

"What matters is that the team get the objectives we want and manage to get the three points in every game we play. Luckily, for the moment, we are getting those results.

"I would have probably played tennis if I were more interested in individual recognition. This is a very beautiful sport, a team sport, and it's very nice to win as a team."

Having also overcome Getafe this week and with relatively kinder fixtures to come, Ramos acknowledged the magnitude of Madrid's latest victory.

"It was very important for us. We knew today was going to be one of the most important games of those that are left for us," he said. "It's a very difficult game always, travelling away to Bilbao.

"We just organised it like that: we had 11 finals left coming back from lockdown and we just had to go game by game, getting the three points.

"I believe today, again, the team proved that against a team like this, you always have to be at it. We're very happy with the three points. That was our objective.

"It's three very important points to put more pressure on Barcelona, who play later today.

"We just want that league title. From the first minute, you could see how we wanted to go for that game and get the result today.

"We knew we weren't going to win 3-0 or 4-0 today – it was going to be a very tough game – but it was important."

Xavi has ended speculation that he was set to return to Barcelona by signing a one-year contract extension with Al-Sadd.

It was reported that the ex-Barca captain was poised to replace the under-pressure Quique Setien at Camp Nou.

Xavi has made no secret of his desire to coach the Catalan giants, but the 40-year-old has agreed to remain in Qatar for at least another season.

The former Spain midfielder has won the Qatari Super Cup and Qatar Cup in his first season in charge of Al-Sadd and is hungry for more trophies.

He told the club's official website: "I am happy that the squad is complete today after the return of the remaining first-team players, in preparation for this upcoming period and the resumption of the league championship.

"I am happy to continue with Al-Sadd, and the team's goal will always be to compete for all titles."

Xavi's side are third in a Stars League that will resume later this month after being halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Al-Sadd trail leaders Al Duhail by 10 points with only five matches to play.

Barca legend Xavi recently stated that he will only return to the LaLiga champions when the time is right, having turned down the chance to replace former coach Ernesto Valverde in January.

"I'm a club man. I would like to return at the right moment to start a project from zero," he was quoted as saying by Sport.

"I've said it a lot of times, but I want to take footballing decisions at Barcelona.

"It's clear that after the [presidential] elections the stage would be set, of course. I'm not ruling anything out.

"They came for me in January, we were speaking. I told them the circumstances and timing weren't right."

Sergio Ramos was Real Madrid's penalty hero for the second time in four days as a 1-0 win at Athletic Bilbao sent the LaLiga leaders seven points clear.

Zinedine Zidane's men have been flawless since the season's restart to claim control of the title rice, but they were given a stern test by Getafe on Thursday and again had their work cut out for a time on Sunday.

Yet as against Getafe, Ramos stepped up to net a second-half penalty and secure all three points in Bilbao, with his latest decisive goal coming after Dani Garcia tripped Marcelo in the area to prompt a VAR review.

A seventh straight victory ensured Madrid made the most of playing before rivals Barcelona, who will kick-off at Villarreal later in the day knowing they have an even more significant gap to make up.

Madrid recalled Marco Asensio for his first start of the season in a move which almost brought immediate reward.

The fit-again forward drew a low save from a fourth-minute free-kick, with Karim Benzema then unable to direct his header goalwards when Dani Carvajal squared the rebound.

That was about the extent of Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simon's involvement before half-time, while Thibaut Courtois repelled Raul Garcia's powerful header at the other end.

Simon might have had a far greater role to play, though, as both Rodrygo and Benzema squandered huge headed opportunities from searching Asensio centres, each missing the target completely.

The second period appeared set to play out in similarly frustrating fashion for Madrid until Marcelo went down in the area and a penalty was eventually awarded, with Ramos coolly tucking his finish inside the left-hand post in the 73rd minute.

Simon saved smartly with his legs from Benzema in the closing stages, but the one Ramos goal proved enough for Madrid again.

Barcelona will be without Junior Firpo when they face Villarreal in LaLiga on Sunday.

A right hip problem will keep the left-back out of the meeting at the Estadio de la Ceramica.

The issue further restricts Quique Setien's senior options in defence, with Samuel Umtiti ruled out of the match due to a left knee injury.

Junior has featured 20 times in all competitions for Barca this season, starting just once since the league resumed last month following its suspension amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Defending champions Barca will be seven points adrift of top spot at kick-off if leaders Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao earlier in the day.

Villarreal are unbeaten since LaLiga returned, winning five of their six games, and are just three points behind fourth-placed Sevilla in the final Champions League qualification spot.

Bayer Leverkusen star Kai Havertz has been tipped to leave the Bundesliga outfit at the end of the season.

Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are among the possible destinations.

Havertz's future could become a lot clearer following Leverkusen's 4-2 defeat to Bayern in the DFB-Pokal decider.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA BOOSTED BY HAVERTZ NEWS

Kai Havertz wants to meet with Bayer Leverkusen to discuss his future after the DFB-Pokal final loss to Bayern Munich, according to Bild journalist Christian Falk.

Havertz scored a consolation goal as Leverkusen went down 4-2 to Bayern in Berlin on Saturday.

Chelsea are interested in Havertz, Real Madrid are hesitant about signing the Germany international in 2020, while Bayern are not prepared to make a bid this year.

Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United have also been linked.

 

ROUND-UP

- Falk also claims Bayern star Thiago Alcantara could join Liverpool or United. Bayern are braced for Thiago to leave at the end of the season and the Spanish midfielder has been tipped to move to Premier League champions Liverpool. However, United are also reportedly interested.

United, Arsenal, Napoli and Atletico Madrid are among the teams eyeing a cut-price deal for Madrid outcast James Rodriguez, says Marca. Everton and Wolves have also been mentioned as suitors.

- According to the Daily Mail, Arsenal are desperate to sign Atletico midfielder Thomas Partey, so much so they are prepared to sell either Matteo GuendouziAlexandre Lacazette or Lucas Torreira to fund the transfer.

- Gazzetta journalist Nicolo Schirra reports Sporting CP are in advanced negotiations to extend Joelson Fernandes' contract. The Portuguese side are looking to increase the 17-year-old's release clause from €45million to €100m amid interest from Barca, Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig.

Paris Saint-Germain are eyeing Monaco full-back Djibril Sidibe, Foot Mercato claims. The Ligue 1 champions are looking to sign a right-back after Thomas Meunier left for Dortmund.

- Madrid forward Luka Jovic remains Milan's first choice to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Calciomercato says. Milan are ready to meet Jovic's agent as they look to pair the Serbia international with former Eintracht Frankfurt team-mate Ante Rebic at San Siro. Patrik Schick – who spent the season on loan at Leipzig from Roma – is another option should Milan fail to land Jovic.

Inter prefer David Alaba over Chelsea full-back Emerson Palmieri and have already met the Bayern star twice, according to SportMediaset. Alaba has also been linked to Chelsea, PSG, Madrid and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane insists Real Madrid are not prematurely celebrating despite taking significant steps towards LaLiga glory in recent weeks.

Barcelona have drawn three of their past four matches, with Madrid winning all of their games across the same period to open up a four-point advantage at the summit.

The Clasico rivals each have 15 points to play for, meaning Barca require a huge swing in the remaining matches, with their derby at home to Espanyol and Madrid's trip to Athletic Bilbao next on the agenda.

Los Blancos last won the title in 2016-17, during Zidane's previous spell in charge, and the head coach is taking nothing for granted.

"The players know that it is a complicated, difficult, long competition, and that those who did it before show that they want to go for everything," he said.

"There is no euphoria here because we have not won anything.

"There is work and commitment to do it well and try to win matches."

Sergio Ramos was Madrid's match-winner against Getafe last time out and he is set to be joined at centre-back by Eder Militao at San Mames.

Raphael Varane was struck in the face by the ball during Thursday's match and was substituted, with the France international suffering from neck pain and unable to recover in time for a place in this weekend's squad.

"He has just arrived, he is working to reach the level of Rafa and Sergio," Zidane said of the 22-year-old former Porto defender Militao.

"Tomorrow he will have to play and I am happy for Mili because he is a player for the present and the future."

Seven of Militao's 12 LaLiga appearances so far this season have been starts, while his fellow Brazilian Rodrygo has only made Zidane's first XI once since the restart and last scored in October.

Nevertheless, the teenage forward produced a lively cameo last time out, asking questions of Getafe before Ramos' 79th-minute penalty.

"He is a player who is changing little by little, working hard," Zidane added.

"He is a charming boy, he is well, and in the end we will take advantage of his qualities."

Eden Hazard will sit out Real Madrid's LaLiga match with Athletic Bilbao as he is not fully fit, head coach Zinedine Zidane said on Saturday. 

The Belgium international sustained a heavy knock in the 1-0 win over Espanyol and missed the victory against Getafe on Thursday. 

Madrid could stretch their lead over Barcelona at the top of LaLiga to seven points if they win at Athletic on Sunday before the Catalans face Villarreal, but Zidane is not prepared to take any unnecessary risks with Hazard that could jeopardise his chances of finishing the season. 

"Eden's having a hard time these days and we don't want to risk anything, and he's the first [to agree]," Zidane said. "Hopefully, it's a small thing and we can see him again before the end of the league [season]. 

"He's been away for three or four days and I hope he'll get over it quickly. It's day to day; we don't know anything more than it's a strong blow. There are those who know, the doctors and the medics... they are very competent people. It was a blow against Espanyol and it's a matter of days." 

Hazard's first season at Madrid since a €100million move from Chelsea has been blighted by injuries, with the 29-year-old having only started 13 league games in 2019-20. 

"The Hazard thing is the sort of thing we don't want to happen, that's the worst thing for me," Zidane said. "It's not just me, there's a lot of people here to help the player. 

"For Eden, it's his first year and he wants to help the team. And when he can't do that, he's not happy. 

"I don't think he's afraid [of injuries]; what he wants is to be good enough to play. If he doesn't look 100 per cent, it's a problem for him and for everyone, because we love him to the max. 

"What I hope is that we'll soon get out of it." 

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