Memphis Depay applauded Donyell Malen's impact on his first start at Euro 2020 against North Macedonia as the young forward proved a frequent creative outlet.

The Oranje won 3-0 on Monday as they finished the group stage with a 100 per cent record for only the third time in European Championship history.

While North Macedonia were by no means lacking threat in attack, as their 1.14 xG (expected goals) value suggested they were unfortunate to not get on the scoresheet, the Dutch were a cut above.

 

Depay put them in front in the 24th minute, playing his part in a counter that released Malen into the box and he picked out the new Barcelona signing with a square pass.

That was one of four key passes on the day for Malen, twice as many as anyone else on the pitch – in fact, only Steven Zuber and Domenico Berardi (five) have managed to create more chances from open play in a single Euro 2020 match than him.

 

Malen had impressed as a substitute in each of the Netherlands' first two matches, prompting fans to fly a plane over their training session on Sunday urging Frank de Boer to finally give him a start, and his team-mates were suitably impressed.

"Donyell and I haven't played together very often, but you saw that when we got the ball we had so much threat attacking from deep," Depay said.

"Perhaps that was also because of North Macedonia, but we did find each other a few times. He had his assist, I had my assist. I liked it."

 

Frenkie de Jong added: "Malen is just a very good player, threatening in the depths and he can score a goal. Three goals is not bad, but it could have been more."

Malen started in place of Wout Weghorst, who scored in the Oranje's opener and hit the crossbar when he came on against North Macedonia.

While Malen's pace in attack would appear to fit in better with the Netherlands' high intensity in attack, which is identified by the fact their 44 high turnovers is more than any other team at the Euros, De Boer is yet to decide what he will do in the last 16.

 

"It looked good at times. Wout of course also wanted to play, but he expected me to try something different today," the coach added.

"Whether we will do it again in the next game depends partly on the opponent. In any case, I think we have made progress in all aspects. At times it was a whirlwind and we are doing well."

Despite plenty of doubts heading into Euro 2020, Frank de Boer's Netherlands side could well just be a surprise package.

The Netherlands joined Belgium and Italy in qualifying for the last 16 as they claimed a 2-0 victory over Austria in Amsterdam on Thursday, ensuring they will top Group C.

In truth, they came up against an Austria team who are failing to get the best from the talent Franco Foda has at his disposal, though that will not dispel the positivity surrounding the Oranje after two vibrant attacking displays.

With Matthijs de Ligt back at the heart of their defence and Frenkie de Jong commanding midfield, the Netherlands looked solid at the back, and this encounter seemed to pit a team with a set system – if sometimes overly offensive – against a side with little idea as to how they want to play.

 

Austria wasting Alaba's talent

David Alaba is a player whose versatility has always come in handy both for Bayern Munich and Austria. Indeed, he has more often than not played in midfield for his country.

He managed to advance forward from a position on the left of a back three in the 3-1 win over North Macedonia on Sunday, providing the assist for Austria's second goal, but in Amsterdam, stationed in the middle of the defence, he looked a shadow of the world-class talent he truly is.

While still managing to create two chances – matching his total from game one – he was too often forced to stay deep and marshall Austria's line, subsequently becoming a victim of the Netherlands' press. It was only at 2-0 down that Foda made the decision to move his talisman into a more advanced position, from which the Real Madrid-bound left-footer went close to a stunning goal which would have set up a grandstand finish.

It rounded out a frustrating night for the 28-year-old, whose rash lunge on Denzel Dumfries led to Austria falling behind.

 

De Jong serves up midfield masterclass

As Alaba became bogged down in defence, De Jong had free rein in midfield. The Barcelona man sure made the most of it.

The Netherlands actually had less possession (46.9 per cent) than their visitors, but they always looked to have the match under control and De Jong, whose 77 touches was a team-high, was crucial.

No player made more tackles (three) or regained possession on more occasions (12) than the former Ajax star, who was at his silky best when on the ball, effortlessly gliding through midfield and picking out his team-mates 49 times, out of 58 attempts, giving him a passing accuracy of 84.5 per cent.

With the bombarding Dumfries stretching the pitch down the right, De Jong was afforded the time and space to run the show.

Depay shows his best... and worst

Memphis Depay had five of the Netherlands' six efforts at goal in the first half, with his penalty – won by the excellent Dumfries – putting the hosts ahead after 11 minutes.

Depay has scored 27 goals for his country, five more than any other Dutch player since his debut, with Georgino Wijnaldum (22) his closest challenger.

He really should have had added more to that total. Depay lashed into the side-netting in the 24th minute, but his glaring miss came when he sliced over with the goal gaping just before half-time.

Nevertheless, his talent is there for all to see, with his six efforts a game-high – albeit the only one which hit the target was his goal.

It helps that Depay has found support in the goalscoring stakes, Dumfries putting the seal on victory in this game and becoming only the second Dutchman to score in his first two appearances at the Euros, after Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Sabitzer crowded out as Arnautovic's absence felt

Marko Arnautovic's suspension for his over-zealous celebration against North Macedonia left Austria short of one of their best options in attack, but Foda is also struggling to find a way to bring Marcel Sabitzer's creativity to the fore.

The RB Leipzig midfielder showed quality with a supreme cross for the opener against North Macedonia, yet he failed to create any chances for others throughout Thursday's match, only managing one shot himself.

Sabitzer scored eight Bundesliga goals in 2020-21 for Leipzig, setting up a further three, but like Alaba, it feels as though his ability is not being sufficiently harnessed by a coach who has guided his team to just two wins in their last eight games.

The 12-month delay to Euro 2020 has provided an easy angle for debate ahead of the finals this week.

Which teams might have benefited from the postponement? Italy are back in the groove, Spain were surely buoyed by a 6-0 win over Germany, and England continue to develop exciting young talents.

It works both ways, though, as Germany might have preferred the tournament to go ahead in 2020, prior to their heaviest competitive defeat and before Joachim Low confirmed his exit plans.

Meanwhile, neither situation necessarily suits the Netherlands.

The Oranje have a youthful, talented, newly settled side, but there is the suspicion they have already peaked.

Ronald Koeman, appointed in February 2018, had the Netherlands playing some thrilling, effective football in his first 18 months in charge, narrowly losing the showpiece match at the Nations League Finals while easing to Euros qualification.

Since then, the coach has departed, a number of his young charges have seen their careers stall somewhat and Virgil van Dijk, the team's standout star, has been ruled out by injury.

It means there is plenty of scepticism as Frank de Boer leads the Dutch into their first major tournament in seven years.

 

COACH ACCUSTOMED TO CRITICISM

Koeman left the national team to be appointed by Barcelona. It is highly unlikely De Boer could walk into such a role regardless of his success with the Netherlands.

Since leaving Ajax as a four-time Eredivisie champion in 2016, the coach has endured short, miserable stints with Inter, Crystal Palace and Atlanta United.

De Boer won just 36.4 per cent of his Serie A games, the second-worst rate of an Inter boss this century.

Only Gian Piero Gasperini was less impressive as he went winless, an unfortunate feat De Boer would repeat at Palace as the Eagles did not even score or earn a point in his four Premier League outings.

Atlanta faded from MLS Cup champions to also-rans under De Boer, too, before he was handed an unlikely Oranje opportunity, only to go four without a win at the start of his tenure.

The Netherlands' fortunes have since improved, winning five of seven – albeit while losing a key World Cup qualifier in Turkey and scraping to a friendly draw against Scotland.

Off-field faux pas have also persisted, including media conference mix-ups involving Queensy Menig and Donny van de Beek while Jasper Cillessen was controversially cut from the Euros squad following a positive COVID-19 test.

"It seems clear that things need to get better," De Boer acknowledged after the Scotland game, although he was more optimistic in the aftermath of a subsequent 3-0 win against Georgia.

Having made only two changes to his 5-3-2 line-up – one in goal, the other enforced by injury – De Boer declared: "We're ready."

 

YOUNG STARS' STUNTED PROGRESS

Six players who started the Nations League Finals matches should make De Boer's XI for the Ukraine game, but these stars are not necessarily in the same shape as they were in 2019.

Matthijs de Ligt, Daley Blind and Frenkie de Jong were all coming off an outstanding campaign with Ajax in which they reached the Champions League last four, swatting aside Real Madrid and Juventus on their way before coming within seconds of the final.

Van de Beek, called from the bench against England, was also part of that superb club side.

While Blind remains in Amsterdam and will surely now only start if De Ligt is injured – as he was against Georgia – the other three, who should fit well within De Boer's fluid formation, moved on with mixed success.

De Ligt's first season with Juve was tough, including two errors that led to shots (including one to a goal) and three penalties conceded, before he improved in 2020-21.

De Jong followed a similar path of slow progress at Barca, the highlight of his Camp Nou career so far – now under Koeman – a goal and two assists in April's Copa del Rey final.

That single-game contribution matched Van de Beek's meagre haul for his entire debut season at Manchester United, concerningly. A year behind his two younger international team-mates, the midfielder joined United in 2020 and his three goal involvements came across 36 games but just 15 starts.

Van de Beek's season has ended in miserable fashion, forced to withdraw from the Euros squad this week. Far from a regular at international level, too, this might be a bigger setback for the player than for the Netherlands.

 

DETERMINED TO MAKE THEIR MARK

The absence of Van Dijk means the other Ajax graduates unquestionably maintain key roles in the defensive third, but the Netherlands are relying on older heads in attack, even if they are without the sort of superstar Dutch forward of years past.

This country once had Patrick Kluivert and Ruud van Nistelrooy born on the same day; now they rely on a midfielder and a converted winger for their goals.

It was effective in qualifying, though. Georginio Wijnaldum, 30, was their leading marksman with eight, while Memphis Depay, 27, either scored or assisted every 38 minutes – six goals and seven assists in 495 minutes the best rate among the 54 players to have five or more goal involvements.

Depay netted twice against Scotland and once against Georgia, along with an assist, and will be eager to establish himself on the European stage.

The Barca-linked Lyon forward was an under-19 international when the Netherlands last appeared at the European Championship in 2012, while he made only a single start at the World Cup two years later.

Wijnaldum was at least a regular at Brazil 2014, scoring in the third-place play-off, but both he and Depay have been robbed of a huge chunk of their major tournament careers by the team's failings.

Even with a kind group-stage draw, as they chase a first Euros win since the first round in 2008, the Oranje will need Wijnaldum and Depay to deliver. Neither should be lacking motivation.

Antoine Griezmann is proud to be playing his part in Barcelona's LaLiga title push, even if it means continuing to play out of position.

The France international scored twice to earn Barca a 2-1 comeback win away at Villarreal on Sunday after Samuel Chukwueze opened the scoring at Estadio de la Ceramica.

He has 13 goals and nine assists in all competitions in 2021 - only team-mate Lionel Messi (32) and Villarreal's Gerard Moreno (24) have been involved in more among LaLiga players.

Griezmann was once again paired with Messi up top against Villarreal, with Frenkie de Jong and Pedri positioned just behind in a 3-5-2 formation now favoured by Ronald Koeman.

While the 30-year-old was more accustomed to being the focal point in attack during his Atletico Madrid days, he is happy to put the team first in Barcelona's quest for more silverware.

"I try to be there, among the opposition centre-backs," he told LaLiga TV. "I need to make space and create room for my team-mates.

"It's not my natural position, but I'm proud to be at Barcelona and play with these team-mates. Sometimes I'm asked to mark, other times I lead, but I always work for the team."

Griezmann has now scored in three successive matches, his latest brace helping Barca to close the gap on league leaders and former side Atletico to two points.

Barca have taken 46 points from the 51 on offer this calendar year, compared to 38 points in one game fewer for Atletico ahead of their trip to Athletic Bilbao later on Sunday.

The two sides are scheduled to meet at Camp Nou on May 8 and Griezmann acknowledged Barca's fate is in their own hands with six matches to go. 

"We all want to win LaLiga. There are four teams, including Sevilla, that are fighting for it," he said. "We have to try to win every game - that is the only way to be champions.

"It will not be ease but we have the group of players needed to achieve it.

"Atletico are having an incredible season. We are close behind them and trying our best to be champions. We have it in our hands. We just need to win all the games we have."

All five of Barca's shot on target against Villarreal were in the first half, with Frenkie de Jong being denied by a fine Sergio Asenjo save with the game scoreless.

De Jong also missed from a one-on-one late on after the hosts had Manu Trigueros sent off for a challenge on Messi, but the Dutchman impressed compatriot Koeman with his overall play.

"For me, this De Jong is better than the Netherlands and Ajax version," he said at his post-match news conference. "He attacks, defends and is a very important player for this team."

Barcelona, who won their first piece of silverware of the Koeman era with victory over Athletic Bilbao in last week's Copa del Rey final, have a four-day rest before facing Granada in their next LaLiga outing.

Koeman only made one change to his starting line-up for the Villarreal match and does not believe fatigue is a major issue for his side.

"It is more about mentality than freshness," he said. "We have two games this week. The players are use to that.

"Sometimes you have to suffer. We faced a good opponent and did not panic when they scored.

"This is a big step towards the title, as is every victory. Every match is difficult, but we reacted well and defended well, even if we were tired in the final stages."

Ronald Koeman has revelled in his first title as Barcelona head coach but set his sights on clinching the LaLiga crown.

Barcelona lifted the Copa del Rey with a 4-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in Saturday's final, marking the Dutchman's first title since taking over at Camp Nou in August.

The Catalans lost the Supercopa final to Bilbao in January and exited the Champions League in the last-16 to Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca are firmly in contention in the league, sitting third, two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid in a three-horse race with Real Madrid too.

"To win a title is important for me," Koeman said. "Despite the changes at the club and the young players, at Barca you have to always fight for trophies.

"We have the first one and now we are going to fight to the last game in La Liga."

Saturday's victory was earned with four second-half goals, with Antoine Grizemann breaking the deadlock on the hour mark.

Frenkie de Jong doubled their advantage on 63 minutes, before a Lionel Messi rounded out an emphatic win which Koeman said they deserved.

"A result like this is not normal, but we deserved the cup," Koeman said.

"It took us a bit to score, but we had chances. Our possession has been good and after 1-0 we have dominated the game with great football in every way."

The 58-year-old former Netherlands coach also heaped praise on De Jong and Messi for their leading role.

"De Jong and Messi are great players: Leo has been proving for so many years that he is the best in the world, he has returned to being effective, but we must also highlight Frenkie and the whole team," Koeman said.

"We have been at an extraordinary level. We deserve this cup."

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona turned on the style in the second half to beat Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in Saturday's Copa del Rey final and win their first silverware under Ronald Koeman.

Barca were beaten 3-2 by Athletic in January's Supercopa de Espana final and they were kept at bay by the Basque club for an hour in this latest encounter at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja.

But Frenkie de Jong set up Antoine Griezmann for the crucial breakthrough goal and added the second himself three minutes later, before Messi took over with a couple of quickfire strikes as Barca made it a record-extending 31st Copa del Rey triumph.

It means yet more heartbreak for Athletic, though, after they were beaten 1-0 by Real Sociedad in the delayed 2019-20 final two weeks ago.

It was billed as one of the most important Clasicos in years. The outcome, it was said, could set the tone for the entire season and, by extension, the future of Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian's revelation he wanted to leave was still ringing in the ears of Barca directors two months on in October last year. While they'd managed to keep hold of him, owing to Messi's reluctance to drag his club through the courts, his form on the pitch hardly suggested he was at peace.

One goal in four LaLiga matches heading into that October 24 Clasico was his slowest start to a season since 2005-06 when he was a fresh-faced teenager still trying to establish himself.

What followed at Camp Nou on that Saturday looked set to plunge Barca further into crisis, as the Catalans lost 3-1 to Madrid despite dominating much of the match. It was a bad look for new coach Ronald Koeman – already under-fire – as well as Messi, whose failure to score took him to 515 minutes without a goal against Los Blancos in LaLiga, just seven shy of his worst ever barren run in El Clasico.

Messi's proviso for staying beyond the end of 2020-21 was that Barca had to look capable of winning titles; while supporters felt hard done by given Sergio Ramos' theatrics when winning a penalty, there was little in the Blaugrana's performance to suggest a title tilt was realistic.

But here we are, a little over five months later, and the outlook is rather different.

Koeman gets to know his squad

"Koeman explodes," read the front page of Mundo Deportivo the next day. "A Clasico robbery," declared Sport. Both publications listed their grievances with the result but largely glossed over Barca's issues.

This was more than just a one-off defeat in a Clasico, it was the second of four league losses in a run of just seven games. That run, culminating in a shock loss to promoted Cadiz in December, saw them suffer at least four defeats in the first 10 LaLiga matches of the season for only the second time since 1988.

 

Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Koeman.

His decision to implement his favoured 4-2-3-1 system wasn't necessarily surprising, but given Barca's attachment to 4-3-3, it was certainly seen as a bold move.

To say that it flatly didn't work wouldn't be entirely accurate, but Koeman's subsequent search for alternative set-ups speaks to the fact Barca weren't convincing.

Since suffering back-to-back defeats to Cadiz and Juventus at the start of December, Koeman has largely – depending on personnel and opponents – switched between 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1.

While their form hasn't been perfect across all fronts, they've not lost a LaLiga game since. The move to a back three in particular has appeared to resonate with the Barca squad, winning six of seven league – and conceding just three goals – matches when operating with such a defensive structure.

That 85.7 per cent win ratio is a significant improvement on the 63.6 per cent recorded in games where they've deployed a back four, suggesting the three-man defence allows for greater harmony across the team.

Frenkie finds his feet

Koeman's tinkering has helped bring the best out of several areas of the team, but most notably the centre of midfield. While Sergio Busquets has received widespread praise, arguably the two main benefactors have been Frenkie de Jong and Pedri.

De Jong's first season at Barca, while by no means bad, was hardly scintillating, and Koeman's arrival initially saw him placed in a double pivot, though activity maps show he often got drawn out to the left.

But over the season as a whole, compared to 2019-20, De Jong has clearly made good strides and is enjoying greater attacking freedom.

As across the entirety of last season, the former Ajax man has made 29 league appearances in 2020-21, but his goal involvements have enjoyed a boost (two goals, two assists in 2019-20, three goals and four assists in 2020-21). Added to that, he's averaging 1.1 key passes per game, up from 0.9.

 

But it's De Jong's general influence that has increased most, with his 87.1 touches per game up considerably from 66.2, while he averages 25.3 carries per game, as opposed to 17.7 last term.

Not only have De Jong's team-mates seemingly placed greater trust in him, but he's relishing the added responsibility. The Netherlands midfielder is seeing much more of the ball and using his increased influence effectively.

No player in LaLiga has covered more distance carrying the ball upfield than De Jong (4,375.8 metres), while he also leads the league in total progressive carries (405) and is second only to Pau Torres on progressive carries of 10 yards or more (168).

Indeed, De Jong ranks towards the top of almost every metric relating to ball carries, highlighting just how important he is to Barca getting up the pitch.

The heir apparent

It quickly became clear Pedri was going to establish himself in the Barca first-team squad following his move from Las Palmas, convincing the club they would be better served keeping the teenager around than sending him out on loan.

But it's only been since Koeman altered his position that he's really come to life, essentially nailing down a place in the starting XI.

For the first few months of the season, Pedri often operated from a slightly wider position, cutting in from the left onto his right foot. Now, while he still often drifts out to the left flank, the Spain international is spending more time in the central zone outside the opposition's penalty area.

 

He is averaging 26.9 more touches per game since the first 10 matches of the season – understandable given he's operating closer to the thick of the action – and that in turn has helped him create 1.4 chances per game, up from 0.8.

But to focus solely on that would be to do Pedri a disservice. His talent as a fine passer and nimble mover make him the ideal attacking conduit, as evidenced by his 132 shot-ending open-play sequences – ranking third among LaLiga midfielders to have played 900 minutes or more this term.

In fact, of these players, Pedri is involved in the most shot-ending open-play sequences per 90 minutes (6.2).

Andres Iniesta comparisons might be considered a little over the top at this point, but there's certainly no doubt the teenager is thriving. Maybe he could be the World Cup winner's heir...

Messi's miraculous revival

The chief instigator in Barca's revival has, of course, been Messi himself. Having only scored four times, with no assists, in Barca's first 10 league games this term, he's netted 19 and laid on eight in 17 since.

It has been a remarkable resurgence and central to Barca's climb up the table, with the Blaugrana's unbeaten run undoubtedly inspired by their talisman.

Messi's improvement has been almost inexplicable because his shooting habits haven't changed massively. After all, his shots per game are only up slightly from 4.9 to 6.0, with this increase spread across his efforts from both inside the box (2.9 shots per 90, up from 2.4) and outside the area (3.4 shots per 90, up from 2.7).

Again, there's not a huge difference in his expected goals (xG) value per shot, with his efforts worth 0.11 on average until December 6 and 0.13 since, yet Messi has gone from underperforming his overall xG (four goals, 5.6 xG) to massively overperforming (19 goals, 12.9 xG).

 

One potential explanation comes from looking at his shot maps over the two periods in question. Messi does now appear to be getting into the centre of the box more often, with as many as 10 of his 18 goals (excluding penalties) coming from this part of the pitch.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that Messi, without a significant pre-season, saw his preparations for the new campaign interrupted heavily by the off-field controversy. That period of turmoil will surely have taken its toll mentally, perhaps making it inevitable that his focus should drift and his form suffer.

Whatever the reason, Koeman has got Messi back on track and his team-mates able contributing in recent months, seemingly ensuring the coach will be safe for another season.

But the job is not done yet. Messi wanted Koeman and Barca to prove that winning titles was possible. They've more or less done that and now need his brilliance to guide them through a do-or-die Clasico.

Ronald Koeman has no intention of resting Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong ahead of next week's El Clasico, despite both players being one booking away from a suspension.

Barca will be looking to extend their 18-match unbeaten run in LaLiga when they welcome Real Valladolid to Camp Nou on Monday.

Messi and De Jong are both available for the game as the Catalan giants look to keep the pressure on leaders Atletico Madrid, who are four points better off ahead of Sunday's trip to Sevilla.

However, both players risk being banned for next Saturday's showdown with bitter rivals Real Madrid, having each been booked four times already this season.

But while the pair may be walking a disciplinary tightrope, Koeman is ready to risk star man Messi and central midfielder De Jong against Valladolid.

"We know that these two players are one card away, but it is not the time to rest players due to cards or freshness," he said at Sunday's pre-match news conference.

"We have ten games left. There is always the risk, but the best thing is to put the team out that I think can win the game."

Messi has been directly involved in 23 league goals in 2021 - 16 goals and seven assists - which is more than any other player in the top five European leagues. 

The Argentinian has had a direct hand in eight goals in his last four LaLiga games against Real Valladolid - four goals and four assists.

Those goal involvements have helped Barca to 13 wins in their previous 14 LaLiga games against Valladolid, with the only exception being a 1-0 defeat away from home in March 2014.

Sergio Gonzalez's side have won just one of their past 11 league games, but Koeman will not take Monday's opponents lightly.

"You have to be prepared, you can't think that it will be an easy game," he said. "We have to go in with a lot of energy and rhythm and be good with the ball.

"We have to get back to our level. It could be a game without problems, but you always have to work hard to win."

Gerard Pique returned to training this week after recovering from a knee problem, while Sergi Roberto is also closing in on a comeback after two months on the sidelines.

Koeman will make a late decision on whether the defensive duo are ready to play a part against Valladolid.

"They are training with the team lately. They have improved a lot," he said.

"These are decisions that will be made tomorrow after the last training session. We aren't going to take risks [with injuries], nor next week, because there are more games coming this season."

Frank de Boer is demanding a high-scoring victory when the Netherlands face Gibraltar in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Having started their campaign with a 4-2 defeat to Turkey, the Oranje responded with a 2-0 win over Latvia on Saturday courtesy of goals from Steven Berghuis and Luuk de Jong.

Head coach De Boer was disappointed his side did not win by a greater margin, though, given they had 76.5 per cent of the possession and 36 shots, with Latvia goalkeeper Roberts Ozols making eight saves.

With Gibraltar having conceded seven goals in their opening two qualifying games against Norway and Montenegro, De Boer wants a more clinical performance from his players and insists loading his starting line-up with forwards is not necessarily the correct approach.

"More players up front doesn't necessarily make the job easier," he said on Monday. "The spaces might be even more tight that way.

"We want to try to bait the opponents to leave their defensive positions, so we can profit from the open spaces through quick combinations. I don't believe that more attackers equals more opportunities.

"Look, a 2-0 victory against Latvia isn't good, especially if you look at the way we played. We should have scored at least seven times, looking at the chances we had. The same goes against Gibraltar: if you create that many chances, you need to score that many times.

"It all depends on how sharp we are. Norway have beaten them 3-0; Gibraltar lost their most recent away match 4-1.

"We need to make sure the tempo stays high. We can't let them breathe. We need to score at least five times, but preferably more."

Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong believes a resounding win could help to boost morale within the Netherlands squad as they look to build on a run of three wins in their previous four matches.

"It's always fun to be playing for your country," he said. "In these games, you can have fun too: if all goes well, you score a lot, you can make some nice combinations.

"I think it could give us a good feeling."

Ronald Koeman hopes Lionel Messi can stay out of disciplinary trouble for the rest of the season as the Barcelona superstar teeters on the brink of suspension.

Barcelona have strung together a 17-game unbeaten run in LaLiga to transform their prospects, closing the gap on wobbling leaders Atletico Madrid to four points.

Messi, however, is just one yellow card away from a one-game ban, having been booked four times already, and an April 10 Clasico against Real Madrid is looming large.

It would suit Koeman if Messi could avoid any further bookings, but the coach will not let his team selections be ruled by the possibility of the Argentinian missing a future game.

Frenkie de Jong is in the same precarious position, and Koeman said: "We know they are one card away from the sanction, but it is what it is.

"I will not keep anyone in reserve. I hope they do not see a card. If they get it, another will play."

Messi has gone beyond 20 goals in LaLiga for a 13th consecutive season, the only player to do so in the competition's history, and he looks sure to start against Real Sociedad on Sunday.

It would be his 768th appearance for Barcelona, making him the outright all-time leader after drawing level with Xavi's total when he scored twice in a 4-1 win over Huesca on Monday,

With Barcelona already through to a Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, and on a charge in the league, talk has turned to the prospect of silverware.

Koeman's first season as head coach has been turbulent at times but could yet end in a domestic double.

The Dutchman is not interested in such discussions, though, saying on Saturday: "I don't like to talk about a double.

"This changes very quickly. Not long ago we were bad. We have to go game by game and we are four points behind and the calendar is very difficult.

"We have a final against a very difficult opponent. There is a long way to go to win things."

Koeman warned of the danger of any slip-up, saying that "each defeat can be expensive" as he complimented Real Sociedad and their "great coach" Imanol Alguacil.

One player Koeman has not been able to count on recently has been young forward Ansu Fati, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since November.

Barcelona hoped to have Fati back by around this stage of the season, but Koeman said of the 18-year-old Spain international: "He is taking longer than we expected.

"In a few weeks he will be training out on the field again, but he is young and strong. We are not in a hurry."

Ronald Koeman maintains another miraculous comeback against Paris Saint-Germain is not beyond Barcelona's capabilities, especially with Lionel Messi in the side.

Barca head to the Parc des Princes on Wednesday trailing 4-1 from the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick in PSG's commanding win at Camp Nou last month, leaving Barca requiring a remarkable result in France if they are to go through, with no team having ever progressed from a knockout tie in the competition's history after losing the first leg at home by three goals or more.

The Catalans are also on a miserable run away from home in Europe, having won only once in their past nine such knockout stage matches, failing to score in six of those games.

Barca pulled off an unforgettable comeback against PSG four years ago, recovering from losing the first leg 4-0 in Paris to progress after a sensational 6-1 win at home.

Koeman accepts a repeat of that famous 'remontada' is less likely given PSG are the home side for the second leg on this occasion, and the Barca boss does not believe Mauricio Pochettino's men will be afraid of history repeating itself.

However, even with centre-backs Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo missing through injury, Koeman will not give up on Messi and Barca producing another match to remember.

"We had a bad result in the reverse fixture. It all depends on how we start the game. We'll try to make life difficult," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"It depends on our effectiveness. They had a lot in the first game. We go out to win on any pitch. We always create a lot of chances. Nothing is impossible.

"The comeback in the Copa del Rey [against Sevilla] has given us confidence, but it's not the same to come back from 2-0 at home as coming back from 4-1 away, and PSG are a very strong team.

"To be able to have any chance, we have to have a complete night and have a huge amount of effectiveness. But we'll try. Hopefully, we can make things tough.

"We have to go out strong and play our game and create chances. If, after the game, we have the feeling we've given our utmost, we'll see what the result is. The worst thing that can happen is to think we haven't tried, or we haven't given everything.

"Of course, if we think we can come back, we need every player at their best level. If Leo is able to play one of his best games, everything is possible.

"He can decide any game in any moment. But it shouldn't only be him at his best level, but the whole team. We need luck, too.

"I don't think PSG are scared of us. I'm sure their coach will prepare them in the best way so they don't think it's an easy game, but there are circumstances that are totally different for a comeback [this time].

"It's always easier playing the second leg at home than away. We need to play our game. I'm sure they have confidence in their new coach."

Midfielder Frenkie de Jong thinks Barca's comeback against Sevilla, when they won 3-0 after extra time at Camp Nou to overturn a 2-0 Copa semi-final deficit, proves the players are united behind their coach.

With Neymar still unavailable due to an adductor injury, De Jong is keeping faith in his side's chances.

"The main objective is always to qualify," he said. "We're going to compete and see how things go.

"We're always united. Recently, we've been getting good results, and we're united as a team – you could see that against Sevilla.

"I don't know if 4-1 was fair, but we played that game badly. We're going to Paris to give a good image of ourselves, to compete.

"Neymar is among the best in the world. The fact he's not available is better for us. If Neymar isn't there, the opposition are less strong."

Barcelona fought back from the brink of defeat to beat Granada 5-3 after extra time in an extraordinary Copa del Rey quarter-final at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes.

Ronald Koeman's side won at this ground 4-0 in LaLiga last month but were facing a battle when Kenedy scored against the run of play after an error by Samuel Umtiti, making just his fifth start of the season.

Roberto Soldado struck a second on the break early in the second half and Barca struggled to get back into the contest against an exemplary Granada defence and inspired goalkeeper Aaron Escandell.

However, Griezmann turned in Lionel Messi's cross from deep with two minutes of normal time left and the same combination set up Jordi Alba to head in an injury-time equaliser.

Griezmann's fine header put Barca ahead in extra time but Fede Vico struck back straight away from the penalty spot, only for Frenkie de Jong and Alba again to settle the encounter at last.

Aaron was forced into six saves in the first half as Barca dominated proceedings, with a double stop to deny Messi and Francisco Trincao the pick of them.

It was Barca's own slack play that gifted Granada the lead, as some loose passing in defence ended in Umtiti being dispossessed by Alberto Soro, who teed up Kenedy for a tap-in.

Granada delivered a sucker-punch in the first two minutes of the second half. Angel Montoro intercepted a Griezmann pass and launched a long ball forward to Soldado, who raced away from Umtiti and slotted past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Trincao, Ousmane Dembele and Messi all hit the woodwork and Griezmann was denied from an overhead kick by a brilliant Aaron save, but the France forward turned a Messi cross in off post and keeper to give his side a lifeline.

The same Messi pass and Griezmann run teed up Alba to net an unlikely header, but Luis Suarez almost snatched a win for Granada with seconds left, the substitute dragging a shot wide after racing through on goal.

Aaron could do nothing to deny Griezmann's emphatic second in extra time as he rose highest to head in Alba's cross, but Vico restored parity three minutes later from the spot after Carlos Neva won a soft penalty from Sergino Dest.

But De Jong denied Granada a second semi-final in succession, side-footing into the net after Aaron had parried Messi's shot in the 109th minute, and Alba blasted home a stunning volley from Griezmann's clever pass to make certain the contest was over.

Barcelona booked their place in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals as goals from Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong sealed a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday. 

Ronald Koeman's side had looked set to follow Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in losing to lower-league opposition when Fran Garcia gave Segunda Division side Rayo the lead shortly after the hour-mark. 

As is so often the case, though, Messi pulled Barca level soon after with a close-range finish. 

That set the stage for the impressive De Jong to secure Barca's progression 10 minutes from time.

The first clear sight of goal did not come until the 20th minute, De Jong looping an effort from six yards onto Stole Dimitrievski's crossbar.

The visitors somehow failed to take the lead 10 minutes before the interval when Dimitrievski initially pawed away Trincao's strike before Riqui Puig's follow-up was diverted onto the crossbar by Ivan Martos.

Antoine Griezmann and De Jong had further chances, but Barca were ultimately unable to make their superiority count at the break.

Messi clipped the top of the crossbar with a free-kick three minutes after the restart before the Argentina international blazed over after being played clean through soon after.

Barca were made to rue those misses in the 63rd minute when Fran Garcia turned home from almost on the line after Neto had parried Alvaro Garcia's cross into his path.

Messi restored parity six minutes later, however, sliding in from six yards after being teed up by Griezmann.

De Jong ensured there would be no need for extra time to settle the result, stroking home from a similar position to Messi from Jordi Alba's cross.

Ronald Koeman praised Frenkie de Jong for improving the attacking aspect of his game after chipping in with another goal and an assist in Barcelona's 2-0 win over Elche.

The Netherlands international profited from a Diego Gonzalez error to give Barca a 39th-minute lead and crossed for substitute Riqui Puig to score a late second in Sunday's LaLiga clash.

De Jong now has three goals and two assists in his last six games in all competitions, while his five LaLiga goals in 18 months at Camp Nou is one more than he managed in five seasons in the Eredivisie.

He also contested more duels (11) than any other Barca player at Estadio Martinez Valero and no visiting player intercepted the ball more often (twice).

But it is the attacking side of De Jong's game that most pleased head coach Koeman, who wants his midfielders to take the goalscoring burden off the forward line.

"The three forwards aren't enough; we need the midfielders to score too," Koeman said. "It's good that he's scoring and assisting.

"He's always improving. We want the midfielders to get into the box and get up there."

Fellow midfielder Puig followed that advice by getting on the end of De Jong's cross and heading past Edgar Badia from his seventh touch after being introduced from the bench.

It was the academy graduate's first goal at senior level but he admitted to being disappointed by his lack of playing time this term, having made only one start in all competitions.

"I'm having quite a difficult season because I'm not used to playing so little," Puig told Movistar.

"But I'm getting stronger mentally. I'm happy with the team's hard work and how my team-mates are helping me."

Victory for Barcelona was their fourth in a row in the league, three of those without conceding, as they moved up to third place.

The Catalan giants have not conceded in any of their last nine LaLiga games against Elche, meanwhile, which is their best such run against a single opponent in the competition.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen produced a big save to deny Emiliano Rigoni with Barca 1-0 up and Koeman was grateful for his compatriot's shot-stopping ability.

"They didn't have many chances - they only had one and it came from a big mistake from our defence," Koeman said. "But Ter Stegen was very good in the one-on-one.

"Luckily we have a good goalkeeper, because they could've equalised at that point.

"Defensively, apart from that mistake, we did well. The best thing about today was our pressing and our performance without the ball. We deserved to win.

"I'm very happy with how we won. We've had lots of matches in the last few days and we've kept focus.

"We were better than our opponents. We were patient. We won possession. It was difficult to score because they had lots of men behind the ball. But we pressed well."

Barcelona return to action on Wednesday with a trip to Rayo Vallecano in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.

Frenkie de Jong is unsure of Barcelona's title credentials despite their improving LaLiga form.

De Jong scored the opener and created a late second for substitute Riqui Puig during Sunday's 2-0 win at Elche.

That made it four wins out of four for Barca in Spain's top flight since the turn of the year, although they will be 10 points behind Atletico Madrid having played a game more if the leaders are able to beat Valencia in Sunday's late kick-off.

"I'm not sure," he told LaLiga TV when asked whether Ronald Koeman's side are back in the title race.

"We have to win our games and we'll see where we end up towards the end of the season."

Nevertheless, the Netherlands midfielder has no doubt Barca are an improved side after a tough start to life under his former national team boss Koeman.

"Since the new year we're a lot better and we've played most of the games away from home and won all of them in LaLiga. We're in a better moment," De Jong said.

"I think [beating Elche] will do us good, we've worked hard, especially now in the new year. We're growing and improving as a team and hopefully we can keep improving."

De Jong's tally of five goals across his season-and-a-half with Barca has already bettered his total of Eredivisie strikes for Ajax (four) across five campaigns, and the 23-year-old also feels that the imperative to improve applies to him personally, even after a man-of-the-match display.

"Yes, I do think I can play better but it’s not only about goals and assists," he added. "Of course I'm happy but there's more to come."

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