Relegation-threatened Espanyol have sacked Abelardo Fernandez and placed Francisco Rufete in charge of the team for the rest of the LaLiga season.

Following back-to-back defeats to Levante and Real Betis, bottom club Espanyol have decided to make a change in a desperate bid to preserve their top-flight status.

Sporting director Rufete is tasked with trying to produce a miraculous escape in the closing stages of a difficult campaign; they sit eight points from safety with just seven games remaining.

His first outing in the role is a home fixture against title-chasing Real Madrid on Sunday.

Abelardo was only appointed in late December following the departure of Pablo Machin. His tenure started with a 2-2 draw against Barcelona, however just three wins in 12 league outings since has resulted in him losing his job.

"Espanyol report that Abelardo Fernandez has been removed from his responsibilities as coach of the men's first team," a statement from the team read.

"The club has taken this decision as a result of the sporting performance of the first team and with the clear will of achieving salvation in LaLiga.

"The rest of the coaching staff, Tomas Hervas and Inaki Tejada, have also been removed from their posts."

Espanyol finished seventh in Spain last season to qualify for the Europa League, a competition they exited this term at the last-32 stage after losing 6-3 on aggregate to Wolves.

 

The sporting world is slowly moving back towards normality amid the coronavirus pandemic, with LaLiga set to follow in the path of the Bundesliga and return behind closed doors.

Thursday's derby clash between Sevilla and Real Betis will kick things back off in Spain's top flight, three months after it was brought to a halt. 

While there will be no fans in attendance, the stage is set for a truly fascinating run-in in LaLiga; the title, Champions League places and safety are still well and truly to play for.

We take a look at the fixtures that could prove key in deciding the final outcome.

 

Matchday 30: Sevilla v Barcelona, Real Sociedad v Real Madrid

With Sevilla and La Real heading into the coronavirus stoppage third and fourth respectively, there is every chance of a slip-up from Barcelona and/or Madrid in these tricky away games. Not only could they play a crucial role in deciding where the title ends up, but with just five points separating third from seventh at the resumption of play, the impact on Champions League and Europa League qualification could be important.

Matchday 30: Real Mallorca v Leganes

At the other end of the table, two teams that have spent the hiatus in the relegation zone will meet at Son Moix. Three points against a direct rival near the bottom would likely play a huge role in who ends up falling into the second tier.

Matchday 32: Getafe v Real Sociedad

These teams have a great opportunity to upset the established order and earn a place in the Champions League, leading to great anticipation around this clash at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez. Getafe won their first meeting back in October 2-1, so La Real will be eager for a superior win in case the head-to-head record is needed to separate them in the standings.

Matchday 33: Barcelona v Atletico Madrid

Atletico earned a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou to win LaLiga in 2013-14 and Diego Simeone's side will need the same sort of grit and determination if they are to get a result that can boost their Champions League aspirations. For Barca it is one of four fixtures they have left against teams currently sitting in the top half, so a victory could be pivotal in their title defence.

Matchday 33: Real Madrid v Getafe

Barca's meeting with Atleti is arguably their toughest fixture left to play, so a home game against Getafe could set the stage for Madrid to launch a late charge for the title. However, Getafe, who have a Europa League last-16 tie with Inter still outstanding, will see it as a chance to enhance their Champions League bid.

Matchday 34: Espanyol v Leganes

Espanyol are six points adrift of safety at the foot of the table, so strong home form is going to be key for them – especially when they are up against the next-worst team in the league. Leganes triumphed 2-0 when they met at Butarque in December, so failure to win here would significantly hinder Espanyol's survival chances.

Matchday 35: Barcelona v Espanyol

The match against Leganes takes on even more significance when you consider a trip to Catalan rivals Barca is due to follow. Nothing less than three points will be acceptable for Quique Setien's side, though for Espanyol a positive result not only helps them but also hinders their neighbours' title chances. Add in the fact relegation-threatened pair Eibar and Leganes meet on the same matchday, there's a chance for a significant shake-up at the bottom.

Matchday 37: Getafe v Atletico Madrid, Real Sociedad v Sevilla

If the gap from third to seventh remains tight, then the penultimate set of fixtures may well be crucial. Victory here will likely have a huge impact on whether a team makes the Champions League, settles for the Europa League, or, in the worst-case scenario, slips outside the top six if Valencia and Villarreal put together a strong finish.

Matchday 38: Atletico Madrid v Real Sociedad 

It certainly looks set to be a dramatic run-in for Atleti and La Real, with the last two rounds of matches appearing potentially make or break. Simeone's men have home advantage but fell to a 2-0 loss in their first meeting with the Basques in September. There is set to be plenty on the line at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Matchday 38: Espanyol v Celta

Should Espanyol, who last played in the second tier in 1993-94, manage to string a good run of results together then they could have a chance of completing a great escape on the final day at home to Celta, who were just one point above the bottom three when the season was suspended.

Mauricio Pochettino believes no team has had a bigger impact upon English football than the Southampton side he coached for a season and a half from January 2013.

Pochettino remains one of the most highly regarded tacticians in the game after leaving Tottenham last November.

Exactly a year ago, his Spurs team lost 2-0 to Liverpool in the Champions League final.

Jurgen Klopp's men have gone on to dominate the 2019-20 Premier League season and Pochettino suggested the high-octane takes on football put forward by the German and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City were proved to be viable in the English game by his initial excursion at St Mary's.

"Football in England changed with that Southampton team of 2013-14, there is no other team that had as big an impact in changing the mindset,” Pochettino told Guillem Balague's Talking Football show on LaLiga TV.

“We arrived at a club with a president like Nicola Cortese who gave us what we needed to create something unique in English football. Our ability to adapt to a completely different environment was incredible.

"We found a group of players who wanted to learn from the experiences we brought from Spanish football, and with the quality to play a different style of football to that which everyone in English football was used to.

"Young players started to appear, and people started to trust in young players, also in the English national team."

Victories over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea were high points as Pochettino eased Southampton away from relegation trouble in 2012-13, before steering them to an eighth-place finish the following season.

Luke Shaw and Jay Rodriguez made their breakthroughs with England, while fellow Three Lions internationals Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Nathaniel Clyne would go on to join Liverpool along with Dejan Lovren.

Southampton took their astute punt on Pochettino after he began his coaching career in impressive fashion at Espanyol, where he believes he had a similarly transformative effect.

"At Espanyol, we were the first coaching staff who started to teach exercises to bring the ball out from the back," he said.

"The facts are there. Just watch any game from around 2010 and 2011, the ball is played out from the goal. When previously it was always hit long.

"We started with that, and many people are a bit surprised. Everyone talks of Barcelona, Madrid, Milan.

"No, no, it was Espanyol, with Ernesto Galan, Jordi Amat, Raul Rodriguez, David Lopez, Didac Vila, Victor Ruiz, Raul Baena, Juan Forlin, Javi Marquez.

"Many of those players grew up with a style of play and philosophy different from modern football played today."

LaLiga has confirmed the season will restart with a Seville derby on June 11 and the campaign will wrap up on July 19, it was confirmed on Sunday.

Suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, LaLiga will get back underway with a clash between Sevilla and Real Betis.

The remaining 11 matchdays will be played in less than six weeks as Barcelona and Real Madrid battle for the title.

Barca were two points clear of their bitter rivals when the season was stopped due to COVID-19, which has killed more than 373,000 people worldwide.

Quique Setien's men return to action with a trip to Real Mallorca on June 13, a day before Madrid host Eibar.

Barcelona also host Atletico Madrid on July 1 before facing rivals Espanyol in a derby clash a week later.

Barcelona's remaining fixtures
June 13: Real Mallorca (A)
June 16: Leganes (H)
June 21: Sevilla (A)
June 24: Athletic Bilbao (H)
June 28: Celta Vigo (A)
July 1: Atletico Madrid (H)
July 5: Villarreal (A)
July 8: Espanyol (H)
July 12: Real Valladolid (A)
July 15: Osasuna (H)
July 19: Deportivo Alaves (A)

Real Madrid's remaining fixtures
June 14: Eibar (H)
June 18: Valencia (H)
June 21: Real Sociedad (A)
June 24: Real Mallorca (H)
June 28: Espanyol (A)
July 1: Getafe (H)
July 5: Athletic Bilbao (A)
July 8: Deportivo Alaves (H)
July 12: Granada (A)
July 15: Villarreal (H)
July 19: Leganes (A)

Espanyol are the latest LaLiga club to offer a financial boost to supporters in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The club have granted extensions to memberships to cover the 2020-21 season at no extra cost to their 27,883 members.

They have also offered season-ticket holders different options to claim back 20 per cent of the price of this season's ticket.

Individuals will be able to add a 20 per cent reduction to the cost of a season ticket for next term or earn an equivalent discount at the club's official shops or stadium tour.

As an alternative, they will also allow season-ticket holders to acquire up to 12 tickets that can then be given to a third party to be used up until the end of the 2021-22 season.

Espanyol will also offer anyone who is unemployed a discount of 20 per cent on their season-ticket cost "as we are in a moment where many people might be going through financially difficult situations".

"We want to thank all the fans for the support they have always given us and we share the desire to see you soon at our temple, at the RCDE Stadium, cheering on the team," the club said in a statement.

It comes after Leganes and Getafe announced they would extend this term's season tickets to cover 2020-21 due to the disrupted match schedule.

LaLiga officials hope to restart the competition next month, at the end of the week beginning June 8, but all matches in Spain will be held behind closed doors for the foreseeable future.

With most of the world still operating under lockdown conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, most professional sport is on hold for the foreseeable future.

Given the outbreak occurred at a particularly inopportune moment for top-level football in Europe, the situation has bred uncertainty across most leagues – including Spain's LaLiga.

Competitions in Europe are facing the question of whether finishing the season, regardless of the impact it may have on future campaigns, should be the priority once normality returns.

The current focus does appear to be on concluding the 2019-20 campaign. However, even with Euro 2020 pushed back by 12 months, clubs and leagues are still having to work to tight schedules, with UEFA hoping seasons finish by the end of June.

While the discussion over how to complete the schedule continues, the Stats Perform AI team have crunched the numbers behind the scenes.

With all of the division's teams having completed 27 of 38 matches, their goal was to simulate how the rest of the season would pan out if the games were played now to produce a predicted 2019-20 table.

The statistical model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

BARCELONA CROWNED CHAMPIONS WITH 83 POINTS

The results in the statistical model see Barcelona crowned champions with a final total of just 83 points.

With 11 games to play, they presently lead rivals Real Madrid by two points, a gap that is predicted to have increased to four by the conclusion of the campaign, giving Quique Setien a first league crown.

Such have been the struggles of the big two this season, the final tally would be the lowest points recorded by a team to win the LaLiga since Fabio Capello's Madrid.

That team defeated Barca by virtue of their superior head-to-head record in a dramatic finish to the 2006-07 campaign, when the two sides accumulated 76 points.

It also suggests the chasing pack missed a rare opportunity to strike on a down year for both Clasico rivals, which will frustrate 2014 champions Atletico Madrid, who spent big on Joao Felix.

REAL MADRID FALL FOUR POINTS SHORT

The likelihood of Barca winning the title is 70.1%, with Real Madrid's chances rated at 29.9%. No other team is in with a chance of topping the table, according to the model.

But Zinedine Zidane's men are unlikely to face a challenge for second place, meaning they at least improve on their third-place finish from the 2018-19 season.

That third spot is poised to be grabbed by Atletico, who have a projected final points total of 65 and a 41.6% chance of claiming the position.

Atletico's closest challengers for third are predicted to be Sevilla (who are given a 26.1% chance) and Getafe (16.8%), with just two points separating those three sides in the final reckoning.

Diego Simeone would be thrilled with third place given his side went into the coronavirus-enforced break down in sixth, with Real Sociedad (9.1%) and Valencia (5%) the other teams in the mix.

UCL HEARTBREAK FOR LA REAL & GETAFE AS SEVILLA CLINCH 4TH

Sociedad and Getafe go into the break dreaming of a Champions League place amid fine seasons, but they are the two teams who will be worst affected by Atletico's predicted surge.

As part of a thrilling finish in the race for the top four, they are set to suffer heartbreak as Atletico pass them and they fall agonisingly short of catching Sevilla, who went into the halt in action sitting third.

Sevilla are anticipated to finish with 64 points, just one behind Atletico and one ahead of Getafe. 

Sociedad are then a further two behind Getafe with 61 as they are forced to settle for sixth, with Valencia staying in seventh on 59.

The four teams scheduled to finish between fourth and seventh all have a greater than 10.7% chance of finishing fourth, with none greater than Sevilla's 28.5%, so one bounce of the ball in a key game could still make an enormous difference.

Villarreal are predicted to finish in their current position of eighth, though they are given a 1.3% probability of breaking the top four.

Athletic Bilbao pass Granada for ninth position as Real Betis and Levante narrowly miss out on a spot in the top half.

Osasuna drop from 11th to 13th, where they are predicted to finish one point above Deportivo Alaves.

ESPANYOL SUFFER THE DROP AFTER 26 YEARS IN TOP FLIGHT

Mallorca, Leganes and Espanyol are the current bottom three in LaLiga and all are forecast to suffer relegation.

Espanyol have been in the top flight since 1994 but they go into the break six points adrift of safety and the model predicts they will be unable to make a great escape.

They are forecasted to collect 13 points from their last 11 games, but that is not even enough to get them off the bottom of the standings, highlighting the scale of the task they have ahead of them.

Similarly, Mallorca (36 points) and Leganes (35) are not expected to pick up enough victories to secure survival.

That means Celta Vigo, presently just one point clear of the drop zone, are predicted to survive with a final tally of 40, giving them a four-point cushion.

Celta are credited with 14 points between now and the end of the season to finish just behind Eibar (15th) and Real Valladolid (16th).

That means they would avoid a return to the Segunda Division, which is where they started the last decade.

With football no closer to being resumed as the coronavirus pandemic continues, players across Europe's top-five leagues have lots of time to pore over their performances from this season.

Using Opta data, we have already examined some of the worst attacking numbers from 2019-20, so now it's the turn of those ball-playing technicians: the pass-masters.

We have analysed nine key metrics for outfield players to play in at least 10 league games this season, thereby giving us a good summary of those whose passing could use some improvement. Those metrics are focused on the number of passes (overall, in a player's own half and their opponent's half), the accuracy of those passes, corners and crosses, and losing possession.

As always when it comes to data, context is key. For instance, we have included overall accuracy percentages to give balance to the simple number of passes. A team's playmaker or set-piece taker, for example, is arguably more likely to have a larger number of misplaced passes than team-mates simply because he will be attempting more of them, and often in difficult areas.

It's also worth noting that the number of times possession has been lost excludes 'Hoofs' (which, by their nature, make losing the ball more common), while corner and crossing accuracy is taken only from those to attempt, on average, at least one per game.

That said, the below gives a good indication of some passing figures that need improvement - and there are one or two surprising names...

THE WORST PASSING STATS IN EUROPE'S TOP-FIVE LEAGUES 2019-20:

BUNDESLIGA:

Most passes failed: Robert Andrich (291)
Worst passing accuracy: Anthony Modeste (55.4 per cent)
Most passes failed, own half: Jamilu Collins (110)
Worst passing accuracy, own half: Kai Proger (60.5 per cent)
Most passes failed, opposition half: Sebastian Andersson (215)
Worst passing accuracy, opposition half: Anthony Modeste (42.1 per cent)
Most corners/crosses failed: Filip Kostic (199)
Worst corners/crosses accuracy (minimum 10): Wendell (0 of 22)
Most times possession lost: Filip Kostic (616)

LALIGA:

Most passes failed: Leandro Cabrera (352)
Worst passing accuracy: Enric Gallego (48.6 per cent)
Most passes failed, own half: Pervis Estupinan (94)
Worst passing accuracy, own half: Sergio Leon (57.1 per cent)
Most passes failed, opposition half: Joselu (283)
Worst passing accuracy, opposition half: Leandro Cabrera (43.5 per cent)
Most corners/crosses failed: Jesus Navas (134)
Worst corners/crosses accuracy (minimum 10): Karim Benzema (0 of 19)
Most times possession lost: Pervis Estupinan (534)

LIGUE 1:

Most passes failed: Issiaga Sylla (281)
Worst passing accuracy: Suk Hyun-jun (44.8 per cent)
Most passes failed, own half: Fabien Centonze (111)
Worst passing accuracy, own half: Suk Hyun-jun (50 per cent)
Most passes failed, opposition half: Andy Delort (238)
Worst passing accuracy, opposition half:  Suk Hyun-jun (44.4 per cent)
Most corners/crosses failed: Mathieu Dossevi (142)
Worst corners/crosses accuracy (minimum 10): M'Baye Niang (0 of 11)
Most times possession lost: Angel Di Maria (539)

PREMIER LEAGUE:

Most passes failed: Trent Alexander-Arnold (480)
Worst passing accuracy: Christian Benteke (52.4 per cent)
Most passes failed, own half: Cesar Azpilicueta (132)
Worst passing accuracy, own half: Matej Vydra (50 per cent)
Most passes failed, opposition half:  Trent Alexander-Arnold (359)
Worst passing accuracy, opposition half: Christian Benteke (48 per cent)
Most corners/crosses failed:  Trent Alexander-Arnold (246)
Worst corners/crosses accuracy (minimum 10): Gabriel Martinelli (0 of 22)
Most times possession lost:  Trent Alexander-Arnold (867)

SERIE A:

Most passes failed: Stefano Sabelli (324)
Worst passing accuracy: Lautaro Martinez (59.5 per cent)
Most passes failed, own half: Stefano Sabelli (94)
Most passes failed, opposition half: Stefano Sabelli (230)
Worst passing accuracy, own half: Florian Aye (58.5 per cent)
Worst passing accuracy, opposition half: Roberto Inglese (54 per cent)
Most corners/crosses failed: Erick Pulgar (134)
Worst corners/crosses accuracy (minimum 10): Kevin Lasagna (0 from 13)
Most possession lost: Stefano Sabelli (494)

AND THE TOP NINE:

Most passes failed: Trent Alexander-Arnold (480)
Worst passing accuracy: Suk Hyun-jun (44.8 per cent)
Most passes failed, own half: Cesar Azpilicueta (132)
Worst passing accuracy, own half: Suk Hyun-jun and Matej Vydra (50 per cent)
Most passes failed, opposition half: Trent Alexander-Arnold (359)
Worst passing accuracy, opposition half: Anthony Modeste (42.1 per cent)
Most corners/crosses failed: Trent Alexander-Arnold (246)
Worst corners/crosses accuracy (minimum 10): Wendell and Gabriel Martinelli (0 of 22)
Most times possession lost: Trent Alexander-Arnold (867)

Saul Niguez accepts Atletico Madrid need to find a way to resolve their issues away from home after drawing 1-1 at rock-bottom Espanyol in LaLiga on Sunday.

Saul equalised with a stunning strike at the start of the second half after an early Stefan Savic own goal had put Espanyol in front.

Jan Oblak tipped a Victor Sanchez strike against the crossbar with a fine save to ensure Atletico secured a point.

The result means Atletico have won just one of their past 10 away matches in the league, leaving them well behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Niguez says they must raise their game on the road.

"It's taking a lot this year to win away from home," he told Movistar. "The support of our fans at home shows a lot.

"We must learn. The days go by and we must learn that many points can be gathered away from home."

Diego Simeone also addressed Atletico's poor away form, though he seemed relaxed and confident they will turn it around.

"We have to win away from home," he said. "We care about the game we have in the Wanda Metropolitano and then we will take care of winning the games that we have away from home.

"When the matches start, we try to win three points. In these last matches [against Valencia, Granada, Villarreal and Espanyol], we have won two and drawn two.

"We are giving the maximum - we hope it will catch up with us. To enter Champions League or save yourself [from relegation], you need to give everything to compete."

Atletico Madrid could only claim a 1-1 draw away to rock-bottom Espanyol on Sunday, with Saul Niguez's stunning volley sparing them a shock defeat in Barcelona.

Diego Simeone's men had seemingly got somewhere close to their best again over their previous two matches, but at RCDE Stadium they were fortunate to come away with a point, as their underwhelming away form continued having won just one of their past 10 on the road in LaLiga.

A positive Espanyol were good value for the lead when Stefan Savic diverted into his own goal and Jan Oblak's heroics kept Atletico within touching distance when nudging a long-range effort on to the crossbar.

Atletico offered greater enthusiasm going forward after half-time and Saul restored parity with a ferocious volley, securing a share of the spoils as neither side managed to get a second in the end-to-end latter stages.

A scrappy opening brought a typically messy opener – Raul de Tomas meeting Wu Lei's low cross and the ball crossed the line via a touch off Savic.

Atletico failed to offer much of a response and were fortunate to not fall further behind just past the half-hour mark, with Victor Sanchez's stunning 30-yard volley tipped on to the bar by Oblak.

The Atletico goalkeeper made an important intervention just before half-time as well, getting down to parry Adrian Embarba's awkward free-kick away.

Espanyol were made to rue not adding to their lead as Atletico levelled early in the second half – Saul unleashing a rasping volley into the right side of the net from 25 yards after the hosts cleared a corner.

Joao Felix was introduced a few moments later and he swiftly made an impact, as his low cross was deflected on the post, with Alvaro Morata also hitting the upright from a yard out in the ensuing scramble.

A final chance fell to Espanyol late on, but Bernardo Espinosa headed wide as Atletico held on to the point that moves them back up to fourth ahead of Real Sociedad.

 

What does it mean? Atletico unconvincing again

A 3-1 win over Villarreal last time out had followed Atletico's commendable 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the Champions League. In this contest, as firm favourites, they struggled to break Espanyol down and only sealed a point because of a moment of individual inspiration.

Given how Simeone's Atletico have crafted a reputation as fighters over the past nine years or so, their troubles on the road are becoming alarming.

Partey puts his foot in

This was not a match dominated by displays of individual quality, with Saul's volley one of few such highlights. No, those who stood out the most were those who offered industry and defensive nous, with Thomas Partey chief among them. The Atletico midfielder made six tackles, more than anyone else on the pitch, as he helped the visitors backline when in trouble.

Carrasco creates little

Given how the two teams play, this was never likely to be an open encounter, but the lack of creativity – particularly on Atletico's part – was disappointing. Yannick Carrasco offered very little before his withdrawal for Joao Felix, who did look brighter. The Belgian played just one key pass.

What's next?

Atletico have a big game on Saturday, as they welcome top-four rivals Sevilla to the Wanda Metropolitano for a fixture that is often a feisty affair. Espanyol go to Pamplona to face Osasuna the following day.

Diego Simeone was happy with the way Atletico Madrid stuck together following a tough January, claiming all teams have to weather difficult periods.

Atleti endured a five-match winless run in all competitions between January 12 and February 1, a stretch that was bookended by derby defeats to Real Madrid.

However, Simeone remained in charge and his side are unbeaten in four since, enjoying three victories - including a 1-0 defeat of Liverpool in their Champions League last-16 first leg.

The Atleti coach was not looking for excuses as he reflected on the team's previous struggles on Saturday, although he suggested such spells were to be expected.

"When you are planning a new season, you know there might be difficult and complex times like the ones we've been through," Simeone told a news conference ahead of Sunday's clash with Espanyol.

"For every team, there is a different part of the season where, because of injuries or bad results, they are in a difficult moment.

"I know it is just a phase of the season. We have to keep the balance and strength, be patient and hold together during those bad moments."

This week's opponents Espanyol are bottom of LaLiga, but Simeone is expecting a tough test for fourth-place Atleti.

"We are fighting for different objectives but a victory is important for both teams," he said. "When it comes to this part of the season, the needs are very important for both teams.

"I know it will be an intense, hard match, with a lot of contact in the midfield. The little details will decide which way the match goes."

Atleti's game is not the only clash between sides from Madrid and Barcelona this weekend, with El Clasico kicking off five hours later on Sunday.

However, with both Madrid and Barcelona well clear of third place, Simeone insists he has no interest in the match as his sole focus is on Espanyol.

"I don't even think about it," he said. "We're only thinking about our game against Espanyol and about our job, which is La Liga and getting the points we need."

Jonathan Calleri's hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over Wolves was in vain as Espanyol suffered a 6-3 aggregate defeat in the Europa League last-32 tie.

A Diogo Jota treble helped to give Wolves a 4-0 first-leg advantage they never looked likely to give up at RCDE Stadium on Thursday.

Calleri struck either side of Adama Traore's sixth goal of the season in all competitions - a career high for the former Barcelona player - with Wolves levelling through Matt Doherty's strike.

Pedro Neto somehow missed an open goal for Wolves and Espanyol claimed victory on the night when Calleri nodded in Pipa's centre in stoppage time.

Espanyol gave themselves brief hope of mounting an unlikely fightback when Calleri turned in a low left-wing cross from Adria Pedrosa in the 16th minute.

Their lead lasted just six minutes, though, as Daniel Podence, making his first start for Wolves after arriving from Olympiacos in January, picked out Traore in the box and he finished at the second attempt.

Calleri made it 5-2 on aggregate in the 57th minute by converting a penalty conceded by Max Kilman for a foul on David Lopez, then Wolves' Morgan Gibbs-White had an appeal for a spot-kick rejected at the other end.

Lopez tested Rui Patricio from distance as LaLiga's bottom side tried to set up an exciting finish but the lively Podence capitalised on slack defending to set up Doherty for a tap-in with 11 minutes left.

Wolves should have gone on to win the game, substitute Neto running through on goal and rounding Andres Prieto but incredibly shooting wide of an open goal from the edge of the penalty area.

Espanyol punished that bizarre miss when Calleri claimed the match ball via an injury-time header, with Nuno Espirito Santo's side set to learn their last-16 opponents in Friday's draw.

Diogo Jota scored a second successive Europa League hat-trick as Wolves took complete control of their last-32 tie against Espanyol with a 4-0 first-leg win.

Wolves had failed to score in back-to-back Premier League matches but had no trouble in overcoming LaLiga's bottom-placed side at Molineux on Thursday.

Jota netted a treble when Wolves won by the same scoreline against Besiktas in December, and he opened the scoring here with a close-range finish inside 15 minutes before doubling his tally in the second half after Ruben Neves' sublime 25-yard volley put the hosts two ahead.

The Portugal international completed his latest hat-trick with nine minutes remaining to leave Espanyol, who were fortunate not to have Ander Iturraspe dismissed, with a mountain to climb in next week's return leg.

LaLiga president Javier Tebas condemned an awful day for Spanish football after Inaki Williams reported racist abuse while Barcelona and Valencia fans clashed at Mestalla.

Athletic Bilbao striker Williams said he was racially abused by Espanyol supporters during their top-flight match on Saturday.

The forward passed on a complaint to Athletic captain Iker Muniain, who in turn spoke with referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez, while Williams appeared to clash with fans as he was substituted.

Elsewhere, supporters of Barca and Valencia were involved in violent confrontations ahead of a match the home side won 2-0, handing Blaugrana head coach Quique Setien his first defeat.

Tebas vowed LaLiga would investigate both incidents, posting on Twitter: "Today we have taken a step back in the work started years ago.

"The violent incidents of Barcelona and Valencia, the racist insults to Inaki Williams, they do a lot of damage to all of Spanish football.

"LaLiga takes responsibility. We will look with the clubs where the error is."

Williams posted a message on his official Twitter account, writing: "It is very sad that today we continue to see racism in football. We have to end it among EVERYONE. Thanks for your support."

Athletic Bilbao striker Inaki Williams has said he was racially abused by Espanyol supporters during Saturday's LaLiga encounter.

Raul de Tomas struck in the second half to cancel out Asier Villalibre's opener for Athletic in a 1-1 draw, however the match at RCDE Stadium in Barcelona was overshadowed by Williams' allegations of abuse.

The forward passed on a complaint to Athletic captain Iker Muniain, who in turn spoke with referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez.

Williams was substituted shortly after Espanyol's equaliser, but appeared to then become embroiled in a confrontation with some Espanyol supporters as he made his way off the pitch.

At full time, Williams told Athletic's club media he had been racially abused.

"I am sad for the draw and because I have suffered racist insults," he said. "It is something nobody wants to hear and that is totally out of place. 

"People have to come to enjoy, to help their team. It is a friendship, team sport and it has been a bit sad because these events should not happen. They are out of place."

Williams also posted a message on his official Twitter account, which read: "It is very sad that today we continue to see racism in football. We have to end it among EVERYONE. Thanks for your support."

Manchester United are no closer to concluding their long-running search for a director of football.

Rumours emerged over the weekend indicating the Red Devils were closing in on Lille's Luis Campos, famed for spotting the likes of Kylian Mbappe during his time at Monaco.

But fresh reports in France suggest United will be left frustrated in any bid to lure the Portuguese to Old Trafford.

 

UNITED TARGET NOT INTERESTED IN LEAVING LILLE

Claims that United have commenced negotiations with 55-year-old Campos are wide of the mark, reports Le 10 Sport.

There has apparently been no contact between the parties and, in any case, the former Real Madrid scout is said to have no plans to leave Lille.

United's 2-0 defeat to Liverpool on Sunday and the loss of Marcus Rashford has exacerbated the need for signings, an area in which Campos was expected to assist.

Campos previously had a long career as a head coach in his native Portugal, where he led Gil Vicente and Beira-Mar among others.

ROUND-UP

- Paris Saint-Germain are in preliminary talks with Neymar's representatives about a contract extension, according to French broadcaster TF1, although the Brazilian would prefer to delay concrete discussions.

- Krzysztof Piatek's proposed switch to Tottenham has stalled over Milan's £30million asking price, claims the Daily Mail.

- Spurs could turn their attention to Leicester City flop Islam Slimani, according to the Telegraph. The 31-year-old is out on loan at Monaco, where he has scored seven goals in 13 Ligue 1 games.

- Inter forward Matteo Politano favours a return to Serie A rivals Roma but may be given the option of leaving San Siro for Sevilla, says Corriere dello Sport.

- LaLiga side Espanyol hope to sign Reinier on loan once the Brazilian teenager's move to Real Madrid goes through, reports Spanish newspaper SPORT.

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