Lionel Messi has sensationally hit out at Barcelona director of football Eric Abidal after he suggested some players were not working hard enough prior to Ernesto Valverde's dismissal.

Abidal granted several interviews to Spanish media outlets on Tuesday and, in a chat with Catalan publication Sport, the Frenchman outlined the thought process behind Valverde's sacking in January.

He revealed they began to consider a change of coach after 0-0 Clasico draw at home to Real Madrid on December 18, with the former left-back claiming he and his colleagues had identified "many players weren't satisfied nor working hard and there was also an internal communication problem".

But Messi, who is rarely at the centre of controversy at the club, has called Abidal out over his comments, telling him he should name individuals rather than tar everyone with the same brush.

Writing on his official Instagram account and specifically highlighting a section of Abidal's quotes, Messi said: "I honestly don't like to do these things, but I think everyone has to be responsible for their tasks and take care of their decisions.

"The players [are responsible for] what happens on the pitch and we are also the first to recognise when we are not playing well.

"Those responsible for the area of ​​sports management must also assume their responsibilities and especially for the decisions they make.

"Finally, I think that when talking about players we should give names, because if not we are all getting dirtied and feeding things that are said but aren't true."

Barca are next in action on Thursday in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals against Athletic Bilbao – coach Quique Setien is due to address the media in his usual pre-match news conference on Wednesday, with the comments of Abidal and Messi likely to be high on the agenda.

Ousmane Dembele's Barcelona career was dealt another setback on Tuesday.

Barca announced the 22-year-old France international has sustained a complete proximal hamstring tear in his right leg and it is reported he will sit out the rest of the season.

Dembele has been plagued by injuries since arriving at Camp Nou from Borussia Dortmund for an initial €105million in August 2017.

The latest injury came as he stepped up his return from a right hamstring problem that has sidelined him since November.

 

The numbers

In total, injury problems have forced Dembele to miss 59 matches for the Catalan giants. That is equivalent to 40.4 per cent of the games Barca have played in LaLiga, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League and the Supercopa de Espana since his arrival.

The winger has played just 31.4 per cent of the total minutes that would have been available to him across all competitions had he not suffered any injuries at Barca.

Based on his transfer fee alone, he has cost the club a whopping €1.4million per match.

 

The problem

Luis Suarez is out until May after undergoing knee surgery. Carles Perez was allowed to join Roma on loan with an option, that could become an obligation, to buy. Abel Ruiz will spend the rest of the season at Braga and then complete an €8m transfer there. Francisco Trincao will not arrive from Braga in a €31m switch until the end of the campaign. Barca reportedly pulled the plug on a loan deal for former Villarreal striker Cedric Bakambu before the transfer deadline.

With Dembele set to miss a significant period of time, Barca are hamstrung in the attacking department and it is a mess of their own making.

Head coach Quique Setien had been counting on Dembele's seemingly imminent return to bolster his attacking options after the club failed to bring a new forward in during the January transfer window.

"The transfer market did not give us anything, but we will also recover Dembele," Setien said following a 5-0 victory over Leganes in the Copa del Rey last week.

"He is a player who has specific attributes and I think he can give us a lot. He feels comfortable out wide and we will try to take advantage of that.

"I'm sure he will give us a lot with the potential he has and will demonstrate the great player he is. Dembele is going to be amazing."

 

The solution?

Barcelona have instead looked to their B team to improve their depth, with Kike Saverio and Rey Manaj added to their Champions League squad for the rest of the campaign.

Ecuador-born striker Saverio won the UEFA Youth League in 2017-18 and is strong on both feet but has only scored four goals in 34 appearances for Barca B.

Former Inter attacker Manaj joined the second string for an initial €700,000 from second-tier side Albacete in January. He scored his first goal for the club a 2-1 win over Prat on Sunday, but his second outing ended before half-time as he was sent off for two bookable offences.

Although Ansu Fati notched a double in the 2-1 victory over Levante on Sunday, it has been reported Barca will look to sign a free agent from outside Spain as emergency cover.

Regardless of their next move, Barca will be at a significant disadvantage as they seek to retain their LaLiga title and push on in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Ousmane Dembele has been diagnosed with a complete hamstring tear in his right leg, Barcelona announced on Tuesday.

Dembele sustained the blow during a training session on Monday, having been stepping up his recovery from a right hamstring issue that has sidelined him since November.

While the club provided no time frame for his recovery, multiple reports in Spain claim Dembele will be forced to sit out the rest of the season.

A Barca statement read: "Tests carried out on Tuesday on Ousmane Dembele have shown that the player has a complete proximal hamstring tear in his right thigh.

"In the next few hours a decision will be made on the treatment to be followed for his recovery."

Dembele has only made nine appearances for Barca this season and spent a month out earlier in the campaign with a left hamstring injury.

The 22-year-old arrived from Borussia Dortmund for an initial fee of €105million in August 2017 but his time at Camp Nou has been blighted by injury.

He underwent surgery on his left hamstring one month after joining the club and did not return to action until January 2018.

Dembele suffered another strain in the same thigh four games after making his comeback and spent another month on the sidelines.

At the end of the 2018-19 season, a sprained ankle was followed by a left hamstring strain and a right hamstring injury to restrict his involvement in the team.

The latest setback will be a bitter blow for head coach Quique Setien, who was counting on Dembele's return to bolster his attacking options due to Luis Suarez being ruled out until May after undergoing knee surgery.

Setien stated Dembele would be an "amazing" addition when he regained fitness, with the club having failed to bring in a forward during the January transfer window.

"The market did not give us anything, but we will also recover Dembele," said the Barca boss.

"He is a player who has specific attributes and I think he can give us a lot. He feels comfortable out wide and we will try to take advantage of that.

"I'm sure he will give us a lot with the potential he has and will demonstrate the great player he is. Dembele is going to be amazing."

Ousmane Dembele has been diagnosed with a complete hamstring tear in his right leg, Barcelona announced on Tuesday.

Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic could make a surprise move to Atletico Madrid ahead of next season.

The Croatia international is reportedly unhappy at Camp Nou and has been linked with a move away since the off-season.

Now, a stay in LaLiga could eventuate, but away from Barcelona.

 

TOP STORY – ATLETICO BEGIN TALKS WITH BARCELONA'S RAKITIC

Atletico Madrid are already negotiating with Rakitic about a possible move at the end of the season, according to Cadena SER.

The 31-year-old is contracted at Barcelona, where he arrived from Sevilla in 2014, until 2021.

Rakitic admitted on Sunday he considered leaving the club in January, and it seems a move is likely come season's end.

ROUND-UP

- Amid reported interest from Manchester United and Arsenal, James Maddison is close to agreeing a new contract with Leicester City, according to The Telegraph. Maddison has starred for the Premier League club this season and is poised to sign a lucrative long-term deal.

- Frank Lampard is set to face a battle at Chelsea. The Mirror reports the head coach wants to sell Kepa Arrizabalaga – who became the world's most expensive goalkeeper when he arrived at Stamford Bridge from Athletic Bilbao for a reported £71.6million (€80m) in 2018 – but is set to face resistance from the board.

- Atletico Madrid and Roma are interested in Manchester United midfielder Jesse Lingard, according to ESPN. Lingard is coming out of contract in 2021 but also holds a one-year extension option at Old Trafford.

- Are Milan set for another coaching change? Bild reports Red Bull's head of international relations and scouting, Ralf Rangnick, is in advanced talks to become the Serie A club's head coach and sporting director once the season is over. Stefano Pioli only took charge of Milan in October, replacing Marco Giampaolo.

- Inter almost signed Islam Slimani, who is on loan at Monaco from Leicester City, last month, according to CalcioMercato, which reports the Serie A club's move came late in January before collapsing.

Ousmane Dembele has suffered a setback in his attempt to return from a thigh injury for Barcelona.

Barca confirmed the 22-year-old felt "discomfort in his right leg as a consequence of muscle fatigue" in a training session on Monday.

The club added he would continue with his rehabilitation and did not provide a specific timeline for his return.

Dembele has not played since coming off in the first half of Barca's 3-1 home win over former club Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League group stage on November 27.

He was initially ruled out for 10 weeks and has only started three LaLiga matches this season, spending time in Qatar during his initial period of treatment.

New Barcelona head coach Quique Setien had discussed Dembele last week, saying he had no concerns about the club failing to sign a striker in the January transfer window because the forward will be "amazing" when he returns.

Dembele joined Barca for an initial €105million in August 2017 but has frequently struggled with injuries during his time in Spain.

Timo Werner is open to a move to the Premier League or LaLiga when the time comes for him to leave RB Leipzig.

Germany international Werner was expected to join Bayern Munich ahead of the 2019-20 as he entered the final year of his contract, but a switch did not materialise and he instead signed a new four-year deal with Leipzig.

The 23-year-old continues to be linked with English giants Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea as well as Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Werner has scored 25 goals in 28 games in all competitions for Leipzig this season and is happy with how things are going at the Red Bull Arena.

However, the striker is not ruling out testing himself overseas in the future.

"I can imagine playing abroad at some point, but there's no specific place will go. I'm open to everything," Werner told Kicker.

"When I was on holiday in America, English football was on all the time. But there also very well-known and big teams in Spain where it would for sure be fun to play.

"When you have scored 20 goals this season so far at the age of 23, you obviously attract interest. That's clear. But at the moment, I'm not thinking about what will happen in the future.

"We are now facing important matches that will be decisive for the rest of the season. That's what I want to concentrate on. I'll think about my future at a later point in time."

He added: "What do you say if in two weeks a club that is a contender for winning the Champions League wants to sign someone and makes a great offer? Every player would think about it.

"In my opinion, career planning is always relative. It comes how it comes – and then you have to deal with it at the right time."

Kylian Mbappe appears unhappy at Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid are continuing to track the forward.

Mbappe was unhappy with head coach Thomas Tuchel after being substituted during PSG's 5-0 Ligue 1 win over Montpellier on Saturday.

The pair were apparently part of talks that seemingly did not go that well on Sunday, once again sparking Madrid's interest.

 

TOP STORY – REAL MADRID EYE MBAPPE AMID PSG TROUBLES

Real Madrid are tracking the situation of Kylian Mbappe at PSG, according to Mundo Deportivo.

The France international is out of contract in 2022 and Madrid would hope to land the forward for less than €300million next year.

Le Parisien reports Mbappe, Tuchel and PSG sporting director Leonardo met on Sunday, but the relationship between coach and player may be at the point of no return.

ROUND-UP

- Lautaro Martinez has starred for Inter this season, scoring 11 Serie A goals. Corriere dello Sport reports the Italian giants are keen to offer Martinez an improved contract amid reported interest from Barcelona, with the Argentina international's deal expiring in 2023.

- Despite scoring only four Serie A goals this campaign, Lorenzo Insigne could be set to earn a new deal at Napoli. Corriere dello Sport says the forward is set for talks over a contract extension, with his deal set to expire in 2022.

- Lille forward Victor Osimhen is attracting interest from LaLiga's two biggest clubs. The 21-year-old is already up to 16 goals this season and Lille were contacted by Real Madrid and Barcelona at the end of the January transfer window, according to Le10sport.

- Christian Eriksen apparently could have ended up at Juventus. CalcioMercato reports the Serie A leaders were seriously considering the midfielder in December before they landed Dejan Kulusevski, leading to Inter making their move for the Tottenham star.

Quique Setien praised Ansu Fati after the teenage forward helped Barcelona to a 2-1 win over Levante in LaLiga on Sunday.

Fati, 17, scored twice in the first half as Barca closed the gap to league leaders and rivals Real Madrid to three points.

He became the youngest player to score a brace in LaLiga in the 21st century, breaking a record previously held by Juanmi Jimenez.

Fati has netted five goals this season and Setien hailed him for stepping up for Barcelona, who are set to be without the injured Luis Suarez until the end of 2019-20.

"I think that Ansu is a boy that is emerging, that we all know that has great potential," head coach Setien told a news conference.

"You have to understand that you have to give him peace of mind and confidence to exploit what he has inside.

"Apart from the two goals, what I give credit is the work he has done in defence. He has worked hard. He has given us solutions."

Fati struck in the 30th and 31st minutes and Barcelona closed out their win despite Ruben Rochina's late goal for the visitors.

Setien was satisfied with his side's performance, although he expects further improvement.

"I am happy with many things, but not with everything. We have given up too many shots," he said.

"We made a very good first half, I think we could score more goals. We lost a little control in the second half and conceded too much.

"But it was a good job by the team."

Barcelona are in action again on Thursday, visiting Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.

Ivan Rakitic admitted he considered leaving LaLiga champions Barcelona in January as the midfielder appeared to take aim at the club's board.

Rakitic was heavily linked to Serie A duo Juventus and Inter before the transfer window closed, while Manchester United were also reportedly interested.

It came as Rakitic was reportedly offered to Paris Saint-Germain as part of a deal to prise Neymar back to Camp Nou at the start of the season.

After Sunday's 2-1 win over Levante, Croatia veteran Rakitic vented his frustration.

"I thought about leaving in the January window," Rakitic, who played the entire game, said post-match.

"The treatment of [former head coach Ernesto] Valverde's staff wasn't the best.

"They were bad times but it's in the past now.

"I can say very clearly that there were things that I didn't like."

Ansu Fati's brace ensured Barca stayed within three points of leaders and rivals Real Madrid after 22 matches.

Rakitic has made 16 LaLiga appearances this season, and 24 across all competitions.

Ansu Fati said he still finds himself doubting whether his breakthrough season at Barcelona is "all real or not" after scoring a match-winning brace in Sunday's 2-1 victory over Levante.

Fati, 17, emerged at the start of the season and impressed with his performances for LaLiga champions Barca, despite being so young.

Injuries contributed to a slight decline in form towards the end of 2019, while recent displays left a lot to be desired, but he appeared to be back to his best against Levante.

Fati scored both of Barca's goals, with Lionel Messi setting each of them up, and generally caught the eye as a creative force as well.

In scoring his goals, Fati became the youngest player to net a LaLiga brace this century and he is struggling to comprehend the life he is living.

"I still have doubts about whether all this is real or not," Fati told Movistar when it was put to him that both goals were set up by Messi.

"I've been watching him play for many years, and now I play with him, it's a dream.

"This is a dream. I have always dreamed of this moment. I have to thank my team-mates and the coach for giving me the opportunity."

After going through a somewhat tricky period, Fati credits his team-mates with encouraging him.

"They just told me I have to keep improving and seize the opportunity," he said.

"My team-mates are making everything very easy for me. I have to thank them because it's not easy for a kid to come in, and they treat me so well."

Victory on Sunday moved Barca back to within three points of pacesetters Real Madrid.

Antoine Griezmann said he can do it. Quique Setien thinks Ousmane Dembele can do it. But is Ansu Fati best placed to fill in for Luis Suarez at Barcelona?

The 17-year-old was one of Ernesto Valverde's final plus points for the club, the former head coach handing a chance to the youngster that has allowed him to go from La Masia hopeful to Lionel Messi strike-partner in a matter of months.

With Suarez not expected to return until the season is pretty much over, Barca were expected to sign a number nine in the transfer window. The fact that they didn't is something the board will have to explain, but another time. Sunday's win over Levante was all about Ansu.

Griezmann might have been deployed as the centre-forward, but Fati was the most threatening player on the pitch. Records tend to fall every few weeks in this player's life: Barca's second-youngest LaLiga player, youngest league goalscorer, youngest Champions League player, youngest Champions League goalscorer, and youngest to score and assist in the same LaLiga match.

Now, he has another: at 17 years and 94 days old, he is the youngest player to score two goals in a single LaLiga match in the competition's history. More importantly for Barca, this was no fun-filled cameo with the team cruising to victory - this was a match-winning performance, a double to secure a 2-1 win that could have been more comfortable had others shown Fati's clinical touch.

Only Messi managed more shots (10) and more efforts on target (six) than Fati (five and two). Barca's captain was also the only player to better Fati for chances created (seven, compared to three). It should come as no surprise that Messi set up both goals, the first with a particularly sumptuous throughball.

Perhaps more impressively, no Barca player made more tackles than Fati (four), with Gerard Pique closest on two. That paints a picture of an attacking player not afraid to shirk responsibilities when it comes to pressing defenders and helping Barca sustain pressure in the opposition half.

Of course, no amount of hard work from a forward will excuse a failure to stick the ball between the white posts, but that is a quality Fati has never lacked. His first goal showcased his lightning pace but also a surprising level of strength, as he shoved away his marker before composedly slotting beneath goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez with his right foot. His second underlined what he makes him such a threat: unpredictability. Messi played the ball into feet this time, and Fati shifted to his left before drilling in a low shot through Aitor, who could have done better.

The ability to score with either foot with ease keeps defenders wary and makes it significantly harder for opposition teams to prepare containment plans. A determined work ethic lets centre-backs know they will never be given a moment's peace when this forward is on the pitch. A good understanding with Messi is a pretty useful bonus.

Suarez has all these qualities; it seems Fati does, too. Maybe Barca didn't need a new striker after all.

Lionel Messi and Ansu Fati led the way for Barcelona as Quique Setien's men did just enough to claim a 2-1 win over Levante at Camp Nou on Sunday, moving them back to within three points of leaders Real Madrid.

After a remarkable breakthrough at the start of the season, Fati had recently come in for criticism amid some underwhelming displays, but he showed just how effective he can be as Messi carved open the Levante defence.

Fati took his top-flight tally to four with a pair of strikes separated by just 102 seconds in the first half, profiting from the brilliance of Messi on both occasions to become the youngest player to score a LaLiga brace this century.

Levante offered a lot more from an attacking perspective after the break and deservedly pulled one back through Barca academy product Ruben Rochina in stoppage time, but Fati's efforts had put the game beyond the visitors, despite a hat-trick ultimately eluding the 17-year-old.

After easing their way into the contest, Barca crafted a flurry of chances after the 13th minute – Messi shooting agonisingly wide and then testing Aitor Fernandez, before Antoine Griezmann prodded just off target.

Levante were eventually breached after half an hour as Messi fed Fati with an exquisite throughball and the teenager clinically slotted home.

The same pair combined again less than two minutes later, Fati this time firing through the legs of the unconvincing Fernandez.

The lead should have been extended before half-time, but Nelson Semedo hit the crossbar and Griezmann inexplicably missed from inside the six-yard box.

Barca were fortunate to not concede early in the second half – Jose Luis Morales galloping through on goal and seeing his effort saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, with Rochina hopelessly blazing the rebound over.

Fati was not far off getting a third in the 73rd minute when his overhead-kick went just past the left-hand post, while Levante finally got on the scoresheet soon after wasting two fine chances – Rochina's strike hitting Ter Stegen and going in.

 

What does it mean? A welcome win but defensive concerns remain

Barca were abysmal in their previous LaLiga match, the 2-0 defeat at Valencia that preceded the Copa del Rey demolition of Leganes.

In Mestalla they left a lot to be desired at the back and again they failed to keep a clean sheet on Sunday, with those concerns still prominent. Levante could – and arguably should – have had more than one goal to show for their efforts.

Fati gets a timely boost

It would be unfair to be too harsh on a teenager, particularly considering he is obviously talented, but Fati's impact of late had been minimal. On Sunday, however, he was lively, intelligent with his movement and a creative outlet, providing three key passes on top of his two goals.

Griezmann is no Suarez

Luis Suarez was always going to be tricky to replace, even for Griezmann. There were hints of promise in the first half as the Frenchman got into some good positions, but he wasted one particularly good opportunity. None of his three shots were on target and he did not create any chances either – Suarez is often productive on both fronts..

What's next?

Barca return to Copa del Rey action on Thursday at Athletic Bilbao, before heading to Seville to face Setien's former club Real Betis in LaLiga three days later. Levante host Leganes on Saturday.

Liverpool might be cruising towards the title but the runaway Premier League leaders could still face a crucial fight in the near future.

According to a new report, star centre-back Virgil van Dijk has become a top target for Italian giants Juventus.

Could a record-breaking transfer to Turin appeal to the Netherlands international?

 

TOP STORY – JUVE SET SIGHTS ON VAN DIJK

Maurizio Sarri's Juve have identified Reds defender Van Dijk as the man to help achieve their Champions League dream, according to The Sun.

The Bianconeri are said to be preparing a €178.5million (£150m) offer that could force Liverpool to consider parting company with the 28-year-old, who swapped Southampton for Merseyside in a £75m move in January 2018.

The report claims Van Dijk "may be open to a move abroad" if he wins the Premier League this term, which now appears a mere formality.

The proposed fee would eclipse the £80m that saw Harry Maguire leave Leicester City for Manchester United and again make Van Dijk the world's most expensive player in his position.

 

ROUND-UP 

- After signing Maguire, the Red Devils appear to be pining for another expensive defender. The Daily Star suggests the club will ramp up their attempts to capture Kalidou Koulibaly in the close season - although the Napoli centre-back could cost up to £90m.

- Arsenal rejected a deadline-day approach for Mesut Ozil from an unnamed Qatar club, the Mirror states. Ozil, 31, reportedly "would have been willing to listen" to an offer, but the contact came too late for the Gunners to arrange a replacement.

- LaLiga leaders Real Madrid considered signing teenage attacker Amine Gouiri and contacted Lyon before deciding against lodging a formal January bid, according to L'Equipe.

- Their title rivals Barcelona are close to agreeing a deal that will see Chelsea winger Willian arrive on a free at season's end, reports Marca.

- Gouiri is not the only Lyon youngster attracting interest. Milan, already planning for next season, are monitoring the Ligue 1 club's promising right-back Pierre Kalulu, claims CalcioMercato.

Quique Setien insists Barcelona's depleted squad has more than enough quality to compete on multiple fronts during the second half of the season.

Barca allowed four players to leave Camp Nou during the January transfer window, with Moussa Wague, Jean-Clair Todibo, Carles Perez and Carles Alena departing on loan.

The Spanish champions did announce the signings of Brazilian midfielder Matheus Fernandes and Portuguese forward Francisco Trincao on deadline day, but they will not officially arrive until the end of the season.

Barca host Levante on Sunday and Setien is unconcerned at the number of players at his disposal as they look to retain their LaLiga title and win the Champions League for the first time since 2015.

He told a media conference: "We have fewer players now but we've got a B team behind us and those young players are ready. Some are already training with the first team and we're getting a chance to look at them. I'm sure they will help us out when we need them.

"You could think the team is weaker, but you never know that. Sometimes things can turn out differently. You can guess what might happen but I wouldn't waste your energy."

Asked if he prefers operating with a smaller squad, Setien said: "What hurts me, and always had done, is picking teams and having to leave players out. I like to have fewer players. That way, everyone is plugged into what you're doing.

"There is a risk attached to that sometimes but it's good to have a smaller squad. People have more chance of playing; they're ready and more motivated.

"Having 18 real players is better than having 25 or 26 not playing. That can cause more danger than having a smaller squad."

Barca resume their Champions League campaign later in the month with the first leg of their last-16 tie against Napoli.

Despite having fewer players to call on, Setien is sure his side will be in the mix during the latter stages of the competition.

"If I was one of the opponents, I wouldn't count Barca out," he said. "Yes, you can always have a bad day. Of the six, seven or eight candidates, only one can win; that's the reality.

"I'm convinced we will be in contention. We're excited about it. We have a chance, like all the other big teams do. No more or less than any of those."

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