Barcelona look like a team "without a soul" this season due to some laboured performances and questionable decisions behind the scenes, according to Marc Muniesa.

The Catalans were two points clear at the top of LaLiga with 10 games remaining before Spain's season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Athletic Bilbao but remain favourites to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals after drawing the first leg of the last-16 tie with Napoli 1-1 in Italy.

However, questions have been repeatedly raised about Barca's unconvincing standards this season, even after Ernesto Valverde was dismissed in January and replaced by Quique Setien.

Antoine Griezmann has struggled to reach top form since a €120million move from Atletico Madrid, while injuries to Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele have left Setien short of options in attack.

Muniesa, who progressed through Barca's youth academy before joining Stoke City in 2013, thinks the 2019-20 season has dome some damage to Barca's wider image.

"Everything that's happened has been a bit bizarre, with Valverde's sacking, people putting on pressure from outside about the play... it looks like a team without a soul," the defender told Sport.

"It's very difficult to do what Pep [Guardiola] did or Luis Enrique, who played a little more on the counter-attack. Now, with injuries to Dembele and Luis Suarez, there aren't as many solutions up front.

"Griezmann is not at the high level expected of him and Messi is a bit on his own. The best news is Ansu Fati, who's a footballer who has no fear.

"The football issue was a bit more complicated because the investment in wages is the most important thing at the club and it's normal that it would take a bit longer."

Barca have taken steps this week to manage the financial implications of the football season being placed on hold.

The first-team squad have taken a 70 per cent pay cut and provided further financial aid to ensure Barca's non-playing staff are able to take home their full wages over the coming weeks.

The decision took time to be announced but Muniesa thinks it was an admirable move on the part of the players.

"Everyone wanted to do it in their own way. The players, in the end, have set a great example for many people by helping club employees to keep their whole wages. I think it's very positive - a great step taken by the squad," he said.

Neymar, Lautaro Martinez or both? Barcelona may have a decision to make this close season.

Neymar has been linked with a return to Camp Nou, while the LaLiga giants are also reportedly interested in Inter star Martinez.

Barcelona could be forced to choose between the two in the next transfer window.

 

TOP STORY – NEYMAR, MARTINEZ OR BOTH? BARCELONA'S BIG DECISION

Barcelona want both Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar and Inter's Martinez but know it will be difficult to land the duo, according to Sport.

It reports landing Martinez is shaping to be easier as Inter are willing to accept players as part of a deal.

Martinez has scored 16 goals in 31 games for Inter this season, while Neymar has netted 18 times in 22 appearances for PSG.

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United could be turning to an old target. ESPN reports the Premier League club are prepared to make a bid for Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt if the Serie A giants are open to a sale this close season.

- Harry Kane's future at Tottenham seemingly remains unclear. But The Daily Mail says Spurs are confident of keeping the forward, who said on Monday he would not stay at the club just "for the sake of it".

- It looks like Jadon Sancho to Liverpool will not be happening. The Mirror claims the Premier League leaders are not targeting the Borussia Dortmund star, leaving United and Chelsea as the English clubs still in the chase.

- Where will Philippe Coutinho end up next season? Sport reports Leicester City are interested in a loan deal for the playmaker, who is on loan at Bayern Munich from Barcelona. Staying at Camp Nou and Sport says Barcelona are considering a move for Layvin Kurzawa, who is out of contract at PSG at season's end, as a back-up to Jordi Alba.

- Edinson Cavani is also out of contract at the end of the season at PSG, but CalcioMercato reports the Uruguayan striker will not be joining Atletico Madrid, the club he has been linked to.

- With Alexis Sanchez set to return to Manchester United from his loan spell at Inter, The Sun reports the club will be forced to pay the attacker a £1.1million loyalty payment.

Diego Godin compared in-demand Inter team-mate Lautaro Martinez to Luis Suarez and Manchester City's Sergio Aguero amid links to Barcelona.

Martinez has reportedly emerged as Barca's top transfer target, with the LaLiga champions keen to sign a long-term replacement for veteran forward Suarez.

Barca's LaLiga rivals Madrid are also reportedly interested, while Premier League giants Manchester United and Manchester City have both been linked.

Inter defender Godin heaped praise on 22-year-old Argentina international Martinez, who had scored 16 goals across all competitions before Serie A was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Lautaro is similar to Luis and Sergio Aguero," the Uruguayan centre-back told ESPN.

"He's learning to play using his whole body, with his back to the ball. He's a football player.

"His confidence has a high ceiling and he's maturing with every match. You can spot things in him that tell you he'll be around for 10 or 15 years."

Martinez swapped Racing Club for Inter in 2018 and he has quickly established himself as one of the most sought-after forwards in European football.

He has scored 25 goals in total since joining Inter from Racing Club in Argentina.

Liverpool star Virgil van Dijk labelled Barcelona great Lionel Messi his toughest opponent.

Van Dijk and Messi went head-to-head last season, when Liverpool produced an incredible second-leg comeback to beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals.

The Netherlands international paid tribute to Messi, a record six-time Ballon d'Or winner who is regarded as one of the greatest players of all-time.

"There are some difficult strikers out there, but probably Leo Messi," Van Dijk wrote on Twitter when asked who his toughest opponent was.

However, Van Dijk also credited Sergio Aguero, having faced the Manchester City forward regularly in recent seasons.

Asked who the hardest player to mark was, the defender replied: "Aguero."

Van Dijk said he was "feeling fine" and would be ready to go when the Premier League season, which is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, resumes.

Liverpool held a 25-point lead atop the table when the season was stopped.

Reports in the UK this week suggested there is growing support to void the current Premier League season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Additionally, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin admitted the 2019-20 campaign might have to be scrubbed from the records, after Euro 2020 was moved back 12 months.

Although the likes of runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool would understandably despair at such a prospect, there are other clubs enjoying seasons to forget who might enjoy the escape clause.

With that in mind, we took a look back at the teams and individuals who might like to expunge an ignominious season or period of time from history.

 

MANCHESTER UNITED 2013-14

The seven years since Alex Ferguson's retirement have not exactly gone swimmingly for United, but that ill-fated first season remains the real low point. 

David Moyes lasted just 10 months as Ferguson's replacement as the reigning Premier League champions finished seventh in 2013-14, suffering truly humiliating defeats to top two Manchester City and Liverpool along the way. A wretched 2-0 loss at Moyes' former club Everton proved the final straw.

At least they won the Community Shield in August 2013. 

NOVAK DJOKOVIC 2017

When Novak Djokovic defeated familiar foe Andy Murray to win the 2016 French Open, the modern-day legend was in possession of all of tennis' grand slams. The question was, who can stop this man? Well, the answer was actually himself.

A round-three exit at Wimbledon followed a month later and, although he reached the US Open final that year, a barren 2017 followed. Djokovic did not go beyond the quarters at any slam that year and reached just one final at the Italian Open, which he lost. Djokovic rediscovered the winning habit in slams at Wimbledon in 2018, beginning a run of five triumphs in the past seven at tennis' big events.

DETROIT LIONS – 2008

The Lions secured an unwanted place in history when they became the first NFL team in the 16-game season era to go 0-16. They went 7-9 in 2007 and were then undefeated in preaseason, meaning few would have thought a historically bad campaign was on the cards.

Detroit started three QBs over the course of the campaign - Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper - all of whom struggled with form and injuries despite the presence of star receiver Calvin Johnson, but worst of all was their woeful defense, which gave up 517 points.

Team president and CEO Matt Millen was fired after four weeks, while head coach Rod Marinelli was shown the door at the end of the season and has not led a team since.

TIGER WOODS - 2014-2017

Tiger Woods' standing as one the greatest, if not the greatest, golfer of all time is in no doubt. By the end of 2013, Woods was standing again atop the world rankings after winning five times during the year, earning the prestigious PGA Tour Player of the Year award. 

It would take five years for Woods to win again as the American great endured a horrendous time with debilitating back injuries and loss of form. At one stage it looked as though he may have to retire and his world ranking had plummeted to a scarcely credible 1,199th in December 2017. But just a year ago Woods was back in major-winning form as, at the age of 43, he became Masters champion for a fifth time.

BARCELONA 2002-03

Years of drift since the 1999 LaLiga title came to a head in 2002-03, as Barcelona endured a miserable season that saw Louis van Gaal sacked as coach and led to the departure of president Joan Gaspart. 

Barca ended up sixth in the league – their worst finish in 15 years – as the Real Madrid Galacticos ruled. They also exited the Copa del Rey in the first round and lost in the Champions League quarter-finals. 

After that season, in came Joan Laporta as president, Frank Rijkaard as head coach, and a certain Brazilian called Ronaldinho. And things got a bit better. 

ENGLAND – 2013-14 ASHES

England made it three Ashes victories in a row with a 3-0 home triumph in 2013 – the first time they had enjoyed such a run of success against old enemies Australia since 1977-1981. However, a rejig of the international cricketing schedule meant a swift return Down Under. The Mitchell Johnson-inspired hosts exacted brutal vengeance on their way to a 5-0 whitewash as a great England team fell to pieces.

Off-spinner Graeme Swann retired mid-series and Kevin Pietersen's tempestuous exit from the international stage was set in motion, while Andy Flower – the head coach he despised – stepped down. Of the XI that started the concluding 281-run loss in Sydney, Pietersen, Michael Carberry and debutants Scott Borthwick and Boyd Rankin would never play red ball cricket for England again.

REAL MADRID 2008-09

In Spanish football's great rivalry, Real Madrid or Barcelona doing well is only half the deal. Success is truly sweet if the other half of El Clasico's enduring grudge are having a tough time. Madrid won LaLiga in 2007-08, with Barca a distant fourth as the Rijkaard-Ronaldinho era disintegrated under the weight of its own excess.

However, the tables flipped spectacularly next time around – Barca stormed to an unprecedented treble under rookie coach Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi leaped from exceptional talent to generational superstar as Madrid were walloped 6-2 by their sworn foes at the Santiago Bernabeu and a dynasty was born.

Madrid finished a distant second, were thrashed 5-0 on aggregate by Liverpool in the Champions League last-16 and coach Juande Ramos followed predecessor Bernd Schuster out of the exit door.

PAULA RADCLIFFE – 2004 OLYMPICS

After setting a new world record in London in 2003 and having won the 2004 race in New York, Radcliffe was favourite for marathon gold at the 2004 Olympics. 

However, after struggling badly to continue, Radcliffe withdrew 23 miles in and was taken for a medical check-up. She later competed in the 10,000 metres but again retired.  In a tearful appearance on British TV, Radcliffe refused to blame the heat and humidity in Athens and admitted she was "desperately trying to find a reason for what happened". 

A year later, she was back winning and breaking the world record at the London marathon - despite a brief toilet break by the side of the road - before taking gold at the World Championships in Helsinki.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS 2019-2020

After a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance in 2019, things went rapidly downhill for the Golden State Warriors. All-Star duo Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins left in free agency, while 'Splash Brothers' Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have been out injured – the latter is yet to play this season. 

The Warriors sit bottom of the Western Conference and have the worst overall record in the NBA at 15-50. An improved chance of getting the first pick in the 2020 draft is their only solace.

MANNY PACQUIAO 2012

After losing to Erik Morales in 2005, Manny Pacquiao went on sensational 15-fight winning streak that established him as an unprecedented seven-division world champion. The Morales loss was twice avenged via stoppage, with the likes of Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto similarly dispatched. A mega-fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr awaited, only for the wheels to fall off in 2012.

Timothy Bradley halted Pacquiao's streak when he was – somewhat farcically – awarded a split-decision verdict over the Filipino great. Juan Manuel Marquez knew all about scorecard controversy from his previous three meetings with Pacquiao and duly took them out of the equation, chillingly leaving his rival face down and motionless on the Las Vegas canvas that December. The Mayweather bout had to wait until 2015, but that is one of only two losses suffered since by Pacquiao, who reigns as WBA welterweight champion at 41.

CHELSEA 2015-16

Chelsea won the Premier League title in 2014-15 and 2016-17. What came in between was nothing short of a complete shambles. Jose Mourinho had returned for a second spell in charge and collected a third winners' medal in England's top flight but the Portuguese's famously abrasive tendencies then appeared to wear his players down at an alarming rate.

Beginning with the 2-2 draw against Swansea City that ignited Mourinho's sapping spat with club doctor Eva Carneiro, Chelsea won only one of their opening five Premier League fixtures. That form was far from a blip and they were 16th when Mourinho was sacked in the wake of a 2-1 December loss to would-be champions Leicester City. Caretaker boss Guus Hiddink restored a modicum of respectability with a 10th-place finish before Antonio Conte arrived and the Stamford Bridge faithful were soon wondering if it had all just been a bad dream.

SERENA WILLIAMS 2006

Williams started the year by losing her Australian Open crown with a third-round exit to Daniele Hantuchova, before injuries forced her to miss tournaments in Tokyo and Dubai. Come April, she had dropped out of the WTA top 100 for the first time since November 1997, and it came as little surprise that she competed at neither the French Open nor Wimbledon. 

After a fourth-round exit at the US Open, Williams ended a title-less year 95th in the world. It meant she returned to the Australian Open in January 2007 as an unseeded player. She won it. 

Jadon Sancho is the name on everyone's lips.

The Borussia Dortmund teenager has taken Europe by storm and clubs are queuing up.

But Manchester United are reportedly at the front of the line.

 

TOP STORY – UNITED IN TOUCH WITH SANCHO AGENT

Manchester United have contacted Jadon Sancho's agent as they look to sign the Borussia Dortmund sensation, according to Fabrizio Romano.

Sancho tops the list of United's transfer targets following his exploits for the Bundesliga side, with Liverpool and Chelsea also reportedly interested.

But Dortmund – who will not stand in Sancho's way of a departure – are unwilling to budge on their €110million (£98m) valuation.

 

ROUND-UP

- Tuttosport reports Chelsea are preparing a huge contract offer for Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. It comes as the Blues reportedly look to sell Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Juventus are interested in Achraf Hakimi, says Calciomercato. Achraf is set to return to Real Madrid following a two-year loan spell at Dortmund. Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain have also been linked to the Moroccan full-back.

Inter have named their price for Barcelona target Lautaro Martinez, Calciomercato reports. With a release clause of €111m, Inter want at least €80m in cash.

- Birmingham City's 16-year-old star Jude Bellingham is set to reject a transfer to United in favour of Dortmund, says Bild.

Tottenham and Arsenal, along with Crystal Palace and West Ham, are eyeing Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, according to Team Talk.

- Calciomercato claims Inter have not given up on signing Napoli forward Dries Mertens on a free transfer. The Belgian star is out of contract at the end of 2019-20.

Madrid is the preferred option for Rennes teenager Eduardo Camavinga, says Marca. Liverpool, Dortmund and PSG have also emerged as possible suitors for the 17-year-old.

- Corriere dello Sport says Valencia are eyeing Inter centre-back Diego Godin, who has been linked to United and Tottenham.

Roma are lining up a move for Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa, says Diario AS. Clubs in Brazil and Qatar are also reportedly circling.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said Lionel Messi agreed with pay cuts at the LaLiga champions, after the captain criticised senior club figures behind the scenes.

Barca confirmed a massive wage cut to help the club during the coronavirus pandemic, with players agreeing to reduce their salaries by 70 per cent and making further financial contributions to ensure all employees are able to take home the full value of their wages.

The news came following reports of a disagreement between senior Barca players and club directors over the degree of wage reduction, with Messi denying the squad turned down the team's proposal to reduce salaries.

Bartomeu said Messi never opposed Barca's decision to carry out salary cuts, telling SPORT: "Messi told me from day one that this reduction had to be made.

"This proposal came from the captains. It is a gesture that demonstrates their commitment to the club."

Messi issued a statement on behalf of the players on Monday, which was soon shared by other members of the first-team squad, in which he insisted they had always been happy to reduce their pay in order to help the club and its staff during the nationwide lockdown, with LaLiga under indefinite suspension while Spain attempts to arrest the spread of COVID-19.

The message accused those in charge of Barca of placing the players under unfair levels of scrutiny while negotiations over wage cuts continued.

Bartomeu added: "Perhaps [the players] have been frustrated by things said by people inside and outside the club, who do not have all the information.

"But the negotiations were carried out only by Oscar Grau and me and we have not said anything."

Lautaro Martinez is focused on Inter amid growing links to Barcelona and Real Madrid, according to his agent Beto Yaque.

Martinez is a player in demand following his exploits for Inter, with Barca reportedly keen to sign the Argentina international as a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez.

Barca's LaLiga rivals Madrid are also interested, while Premier League giants Manchester United and Manchester City have both been linked.

But Yaque said Martinez – who had scored 16 goals across all competitions before Serie A was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic – is not distracted.

"It's been said that Barcelona and Real Madrid both want him, but for him it's like nothing is happening. Others wouldn't sleep at night," Yaque told Radio del Plata.

"He never calls me to ask if the rumours are true, he's focused on where he is and his work.

"We've talked to lots of people, but nothing more than that. For now, those who are calling me aren't directly registered by various clubs.

"There's nothing formal or serious. Being wanted on the market is something you dream of, but he's not expecting anything: all he wants to do is play and score goals.

"His constant growth means the best teams in the world are looking at Lautaro with interest. We hope his efforts will be rewarded like they deserve to."

Lionel Messi has taken aim at senior figures behind the scenes at Barcelona following confirmation of a massive wage cut to help the club during the coronavirus pandemic.

It was confirmed on Monday that players have agreed to reduce salaries by 70 per cent and make further financial contributions to ensure that all club employees are able to take home the full value of their wages during Spain's state of emergency.

The news came following reports of a disagreement between senior Barca players and club directors over the degree of wage reduction.

Club captain Messi issued a statement on behalf of the players, which was soon shared by other members of the first-team squad, in which he insisted they had always been happy to reduce their pay in order to help the club and its staff during the nationwide lockdown, with LaLiga under indefinite suspension while Spain attempts to arrest the spread of COVID-19.

The message accused those in charge of Barca of placing the players under unfair levels of scrutiny while negotiations over wage cuts continued.

The statement, shared via Instagram, said: "A lot has been written and spoken about the first team of Barcelona in terms of the salaries of the players during this period of a state of emergency.

"Before anything else, we want to clarify that our will has always been to apply a reduction in the salary that we receive, because we understand perfectly that we're going through an exceptional situation and we are the first who have ALWAYS helped the club when we have been asked to do so.

"This includes many times we have done so through our own initiative, at other moments when we have thought it necessary or important.

"It doesn't stop surprising us that from within the club there were those who will try to put us under the magnifying glass and try to add pressure to do something that we always knew we would do.

"In fact, the agreement was delayed for a few days simply because we were looking for a formula to help the club and also its staff in such difficult times.

"For our part, the moment has come to announce that, aside from the 70 per cent reduction of our salary during the state of emergency, we will also make contributions so that club employees can collect 100 per cent of their salary while this situation lasts.

"If we didn't speak until now, it was because the priority for us was to find real solutions to help the club, but also those who were most affected by this situation.

"We don't want to say goodbye without sending a loving greeting and a lot of strength to all the fans who are finding things difficult in these hard times, as well as all those who are patiently waiting in their homes for the end of this crisis.

"Very soon, we're going to get through this and we will all do it together."

Barcelona players have agreed to a significant pay cut during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the club have confirmed.

The Barca board, players across the club's respective professional sports teams and "most" of the basketball team have agreed to salary reductions for the duration of Spain's state of emergency.

The senior football team has accepted a pay cut worth more than the 70 per cent initially proposed by the club, according to a Barca statement.

"This additional contribution from the squad, plus the contribution that the club will make, will guarantee 100 per cent of the salaries of all non-sport staff," Barcelona announced.

The LaLiga champions added: "The club would like to thank the professional athletes for their involvement in a situation as exceptional as the one caused by this health emergency."

Barca said last week that certain measures would be brought in to "minimise the economic impact that the coronavirus crisis is causing", although the club did not specify the precise degree of any wage reductions.

It was reported that players and directors were in disagreement over the proposed 70 per cent salary cuts, with negotiations causing a delay to measures being introduced.

However, club captain Lionel Messi issued a statement via Instagram on Monday to deny claims the first team were unwilling to agree to significant pay cuts.

"A lot has been written and spoken about the first team of Barcelona in which the salaries of the players during this period of State of Emergency are mentioned," Messi wrote.

"Before anything else, we want to clarify that our will has always been to apply a reduction in the salary that we receive, because we understand perfectly that we're going through an exceptional situation and we are the first who have ALWAYS helped the club when we have been asked to do so."

Antoine Griezmann has suggested he sees his long-term future at Barcelona after saying he wants to claim the number seven shirt.

The France star has endured a difficult first season at Camp Nou since joining for €120million from Atletico Madrid last year, scoring only eight times in 26 LaLiga appearances.

Eric Olhats, the scout who helped to discover Griezmann as a youngster, claimed to Mundo Deportivo last week that the player "isn't enjoying it" at Barca and is not being helped by the way the team plays.

With Barca expected to try to sign Lautaro Martinez from Inter and once more plot a return for Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain in the next transfer window, it has been rumoured Griezmann could be sold to provide funds.

However, Griezmann appears to be focused on playing for Barca for at least another season once Spanish football resumes from suspension during the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, the 29-year-old seems to have his heart set on claiming the shirt number presently held by Philippe Coutinho, who is on loan at Bayern Munich and is expected to be sold by Barca this year.

While speaking to fans during an eSports contest, Griezmann admitted "I would like to get back the number seven" that he wore while playing for Atletico.

For the time being, Griezmann is simply waiting to learn when he will be able to return to Barca training with his team-mates, with Spain still in a strict lockdown as confirmed coronavirus cases have passed 80,000.

"Quarantine is going okay, but you can't do anything," he said.

"I miss football enormously. I have no idea when the competition will be back; I don't know when I will go back to training."

Real Madrid are reportedly preparing for a rebuild and Erling Haaland and Sadio Mane are their top transfer targets.

The LaLiga club appear set for a busy close season amid links to numerous players.

While Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is said to be a target, it seems Madrid have other priorities.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND, MANE TOP TARGETS FOR REAL MADRID

Borussia Dortmund forward Haaland and Liverpool star Mane are Real Madrid's top targets, according to the Daily Express.

The report says Aubameyang is also wanted at the Santiago Bernabeu, but is behind Haaland and Mane.

Real Madrid were two points behind LaLiga leaders Barcelona when the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

ROUND-UP

- Staying at Real Madrid and the LaLiga giants are tracking Sao Paulo midfielder Igor Gomes, according to AS. A Brazil youth international, Gomes, 21, has been compared to former AC Milan star Kaka.

- Ousmane Dembele is seemingly unwanted at Barcelona and could be set for a move. Sport reports Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp want Dembele, who has struggled with injuries since joining the LaLiga club.

- Barcelona are continuing their bid to land Lautaro Martinez. Sport claims left-back Junior Firpo could be part of a deal to bring the Inter star to Camp Nou. It says Inter, and Roma, are interested in the left-back and Barca would want the €18million they paid Real Betis for Junior last year.

- Manchester United could be set to make a big move this close season. The Daily Star reports the Premier League club are confident of landing Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez for a club-record £135m (€150.8m).

- Perhaps Manchester United had another target. However, Sport says Real Madrid have told United that midfielder Federico Valverde is worth his incredible release clause – £448m (€500m).

- Henrikh Mkhitaryan is loving life in Rome. The Daily Mail reports the midfielder, who is on loan at Roma from Arsenal, wants to stay at the club and hopes they can agree to a €11.2m (£10m) deal.

Lionel Messi has "ousted" Diego Maradona as Argentina's greatest number 10, according to former Italy international Antonio Cassano.

Messi's consistency over such a long period has made him the finest player Argentina has produced according to Cassano, who has called for Maradona's fans to accept that the Barcelona talisman deserves to be recognised as the best.

Cassano helped Real Madrid to the 2006-07 LaLiga title at the expense of Barca and Messi, but that success in Spain has not altered his opinion on the forward.

"Maradona did something never seen before for four or five years, but Messi has done the same things for 15 years," he said in an interview with Corriere dello Sport.

"He has made 710 goals and 300 assists. When he plays you start with a 1-0 lead.

"The ‘Maradonians’ have to accept it: there is someone who has ousted him."

Cassano revealed that, prior to Messi moving to the top of the list, he believed Brazil striker Ronaldo – a former Madrid team-mate - was the game's greatest.

"We were losing 1-0 at home," Cassano recalled. "The whole stadium was whistling, especially him [Ronaldo].

"In the locker room the coach removes Ronnie to put [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy on, but he [Ronaldo] stops him and says 'no, you take me off in 15 minutes if I haven't scored two goals'.

"Minute 15: 2-1 and two goals from Ronaldo. I said that if there is a football god, it is Ronaldo. Then I discovered that Messi is above him."

Xavi named former Barcelona team-mates Carles Puyol and Jordi Cruyff as the men he wants by his side should he get the chance to fulfil his ambition of becoming head coach at Camp Nou.

The 40-year-old won his second trophy as Al Sadd boss when he guided the club to glory in the Qatar Cup final in January, days after turning down the offer of taking charge of Barcelona.

At the time Xavi said it was "too soon" for him to coach the LaLiga champions, but in an interview with La Vanguardia magazine he made it clear that becoming Barca's boss is very much in his plans.

"I am clear that I want to return to Barca," he said. "I am very excited.

"Now that I have seen myself coaching, I think I can contribute things to the players.

"But I made it clear to them that I saw myself in a project that started from scratch, and in which decision-making was mine."

Xavi shared 15 years as a Barcelona with Puyol and together they won six LaLiga titles, two Copa del Rey titles, three Champions Leagues, the UEFA Super Cup and two FIFA World Cup Cups.

Cruyff's time at Camp Nou came in the mid-90s, but Xavi said the 46-year-old, who is now head coach of Ecuador, would be his first choice as technical secretary.

"I would like to work together with people in whom I have confidence, with whom there is loyalty, and who are very valid people," said Xavi. "There cannot be anyone toxic near the locker room.

"We are talking about Carles Puyol, who was captain of Barca, and Jordi Cruyff, a very good businessman and with a lot of experience in the technical secretary.

"I am a team person; I don't want to decide alone. Obviously I would like to be very in tune with everyone.

"In the locker room there can be no negativity, nothing toxic. I would like to enter with people from my environment to form a good team."

Borussia Dortmund will respect Jadon Sancho's decision if he decides to leave the club, according to Hans-Joachim Watzke.

With Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Barcelona all reportedly interested in signing the 20-year-old, Dortmund CEO Watzke admitted it would be up to Sancho to determine his own future – but warned there will be no cut-price deal for the forward.

The England international had scored 14 goals in 23 Bundesliga appearances before the 2019-20 season was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Watzke still hopeful of retaining his services.

"Even before the coronavirus outbreak, we said that we prefer that Jadon stays with us," Watzke told Bild.

"At the end of the day, however, you always have to respect what the player wants."

With Sancho, Gio Reyna and Erling Haaland impressing this season, Watzke issued a message to other clubs who might be hoping to poach Dortmund's rising stars in the next transfer window.

"I'll say clearly say that even the very rich clubs shouldn't believe that they can come here to snap up bargains," he said.

"We don't have to sell anyone for less than they're worth."

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