Ronald Koeman had an eye-catching statement about the importance of Lionel Messi to Barcelona as he was quizzed on both his own future and that of his captain.

Barca can no longer win LaLiga following Sunday's results, with Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid both victorious elsewhere as the Blaugrana lost 2-1 at home to Celta Vigo.

Atleti's triumph meant Barca would not have been able to finish this season as champions regardless of their result against Celta, though Koeman's side could not deliver anyway.

Although they led through Lionel Messi in the first half, Santi Mina netted before the break and then late on to seal a fine victory for the Galicians.

It was a familiar sinking feeling against Celta, who have now beaten Barca five times since the start of the 2014-15 season – tied with Madrid for the most in that time.

However, this campaign has been particularly disappointing at Camp Nou, with a seventh loss the Blaugrana's most in a league season since nine in 2007-08. That was also the last time Barca had fewer than their current 76 points after 37 games (64).

Questions about Koeman's job security are to be expected then, but he responded on Sunday: "I'm not going to answer that."

Of greater concern to Barca fans, though, will be a decision on Messi's next move, with the legendary number 10 out of contract for the second consecutive close-season.

His header against Celta made this the 300th different LaLiga game he has scored in – Madrid great Raul is a distant second on 186 – while he tallied 30 league goals for the ninth time in 12 campaigns.

Since the turn of the year, no player in Europe's 'top five' leagues has been involved in more than Messi's 31 goals (23 goals, eight assists) and Barca are of course keen to keep their captain.

Asked if Messi was appearing at Camp Nou for the last time, Koeman said: "Hopefully not.

"He is still the best in the world and has also shown today that it is impossible to play without him.

"He has scored 30 goals in LaLiga and has given us many points in LaLiga. It's a question for Leo. For my part and the club, let's hope he stays with us.

"Because if Leo's not here, we have a doubt who's going to score the goals."

Left-back Jordi Alba was offered the same question and replied: "Let's hope not, although it's a decision [Messi] has to make."

Alba appeared to excuse Koeman, meanwhile, as he reflected on a tough run-in for Barca, who have won only one of their past five matches.

"We haven't won four games," he said. "It's a shame. We players are to blame. We have to give a good image in Eibar [in the final game], give it our all."

The coach added: "The problem wasn't today. We had the opportunity against Granada [another 2-1 defeat] and today we have lost in a similar way. That's how we feel.

"It has to be accepted because, in the end, the champion will just be the champion. And we won't have done enough."

Santi Mina scored twice as Barcelona's slim hopes of winning this season's LaLiga title ended after a 2-1 defeat to Celta Vigo at Camp Nou.

The Blaugrana entered the penultimate matchday of the season in third, four points behind leaders Atletico Madrid and two shy of second-placed Real Madrid.

But Atleti and Madrid both won, meaning Barca's challenge would have concluded early even if they had protected the lead forged by Lionel Messi.

As it was, Mina had the visitors level seven minutes before the break and then, after Clement Lenglet was sent off for a second booking, the Celta forward lashed in an 89th-minute winner.

It had all started so well for Barca, with Messi predictably at the heart of their best work up to and including his 28th-minute header.

Sergio Busquets' deep cross from the left found Messi beyond the Celta defence to nod past Ivan Villar, who had repelled the hosts' best chance to that point when he blocked from Antoine Griezmann.

But Celta levelled with their first shot, a smart Mina finish from 20 yards that wrongfooted Marc-Andre ter Stegen, apparently unsighted behind Gerard Pique.

Although that goal did not initially alter the pattern of play, Barca became increasingly impatient as they struggled to forge clear-cut openings and left gaps at the back.

A far more impressive contribution from Ter Stegen saw the goalkeeper dive to his right to deny Denis Suarez, while he tipped away an awkward free-kick moments after Lenglet earned his second card seven minutes from time for a rash challenge on Kevin Vazquez.

There was another stop from Suarez, too, and those saves might have provided a platform for a Barca winner, only for Martin Braithwaite to miss the target from close range.

The decisive goal instead arrived at the other end, with Ter Stegen caught under Augusto Solari's cross, which bounced back out off the post for Mina to blast into the net.

Lautaro Martinez sees winning the Scudetto as vindication for his decision to stay at Inter, where he has formed a superb partnership with fellow forward Romelu Lukaku.

Martinez was heavily linked with a move to Barcelona throughout the 2019-20 season, with the player even discussing a possible switch to Camp Nou with fellow Argentine Lionel Messi.

However, the 23-year-old instead opted to stick around at San Siro, remaining a key part of Antonio Conte's squad as the Nerazzurri secured a first Serie A title since 2010.

Inter had finished second in the previous season but have kicked on after that disappointment, running away from their rivals since the turn of the year to be crowned champions and end Juventus' nine-year dominance in the competition.

"I am very happy to be at Inter, even more so after this Scudetto which has been missing for so many years," Martinez said in an interview with Sky Sport Italia.

"We are experiencing an incredible moment and I cannot think of anything other than being here.

"I was close to Barcelona, I had also spoken with Messi. Afterwards, I made a choice - I chose to stay here and I was not wrong."

Martinez's combination with Lukaku has been a key factor for Inter, the pair scoring 75 league goals between them in their two seasons together at the club.

Lukaku has been a revelation since joining from Manchester United. After 23 goals in his debut Serie A campaign, he is at 22 this time around with two games to play, as well as providing 11 assists.

The Belgian striker has been ruthless too, converting 52.8 per cent of what Opta describes as 'big' chances, which is where a player is expected to score.

Martinez – who has 16 goals and five assists in the league in 2020-21 – believes the dynamic duo have continually pushed each other to raise the bar under Conte, in part due to the competition provided by having the experienced Alexis Sanchez in the squad.

"We built our relationship from the first day he arrived," Martinez said of Lukaku.

"The year before he had watched Inter's matches and we talked about this for two or three hours after the first training session. He speaks Spanish, we understood each other immediately.

"I always tell him that there is a match between the three of us, because every training session we try to improve and give our best.

"Each one has taken a step forward this year and this is important for the growth of Inter and this group."

Lionel Messi has spent his entire career with Barcelona. 

That bond will not sway Barca's off-season plans, though.

The Spanish giants have reportedly turned their eyes to a younger option. 

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA PREFER HAALAND TO MESSI STAY

Barcelona are so desperate to lure Erling Haaland to Camp Nou that they would be willing to let superstar captain Lionel Messi walk away if they can sign the Borussia Dortmund star, according to The Sun.

Barca's financial situation would make it difficult to pay both players, and the report claims Messi might see his wages cut in half if he stays with the LaLiga powerhouse amid links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City

Numerous clubs are circling for Haaland, including City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, PSG, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Juventus.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca says Raul is favourite to take over as Madrid head coach next season if Zinedine Zidane leaves. Madrid great Raul is chasing promotion with the club's Castilla side.

Barca are set to complete the double free transfers of City star Sergio Aguero and Lyon captain Memphis Depay, according to Sport.

Arsenal and Martin Odegaard have a mutual interest in extending the Norway international's loan stay at the Premier League, according to Football London. He has two goals in 18 appearances in all competitions since arriving on loan from Madrid.

- Diario AS reports PSG are set to swoop in for Sergio Ramos by offering the Madrid captain and soon-to-be free agent a two-year contract. Ramos has also been linked to United.

- Though Juventus may be facing an exodus if they miss out on Champions League football next season, the Bianconeri are interested in Milan midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu, says Calciomercato. 

United may shore up their midfield with a bid for Getafe's Mauro Arambarri, Diario AS reports. The 25-year-old is under contract through 2023. The Mirror, meanwhile, says United remain keen on Atletico Madrid star Marcos Llorente.

Atletico are interested in Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita, claims the Daily Star. Keita has struggled for form and fitness since moving to Anfield from RB Leipzig in 2018.

Sergio Leon's late equaliser struck a massive blow to Barcelona's LaLiga title hopes as Levante fought back to salvage a 3-3 draw.

Barca looked to be cruising to the top of the table with a victory at Estadi Ciutat de Valencia on Tuesday courtesy of Lionel Messi's 37th goal of the season and Pedri's first-half tap-in.

Yet two goals in as many second-half minutes from Gonzalo Melero and Jose Luis Morales pegged the fragile Catalan giants back.

Ousmane Dembele put Barca back in front, but Leon provided another dramatic twist when he levelled seven minutes from time.

Ronald Koeman's side paid the price for defensive frailties and trail Atletico Madrid - who have a game in hand - by a point with only two matches to play.

 

Jan Oblak saw it approaching like a heat-seeking missile and witnessed everyone in red and white clearing a path.

But it was only when Oblak tipped the narrative wide of his left-hand post that you sensed this would be Atletico Madrid's day, and perhaps it will still be their season.

On the day that Neymar ruled out a return to Barcelona by signing a new Paris Saint-Germain contract, the stage was set at Camp Nou for Lionel Messi, and my word he almost scored an unforgettable goal.

Oblak, however, had other ideas, and unlike his team-mates he found a way to defy the Barcelona captain without resorting to brazenly foul means.

It would have been one for the Messi showreel, a sensational charge infield from the right flank taking him at lightning speed through the massed ranks of the visitors and to the edge of the penalty area, before the Barca forward ripped a shot that was arrowing into the corner.

Oblak sprung into action and plunged to his left, Atletico indebted to their last line of defence. The Slovenian is the wall that few find cracks in, the player as vital to their success as anyone, the glovesman who has kept clean sheets in both LaLiga clashes with Barcelona this season and 18 shutouts in 35 league games so far.

In front of him, Atletico's players know their roles, even if in that one instance they could not get close to Messi.

Typically here, the tactic was to halt Messi by fair means or foul. Given he has scored a remarkable 21 league goals already in 2021, that seemed a reasonable ploy from Diego Simeone's troops.

Saul Niguez, Felipe and Koke were each booked for identikit fouls on the 33-year-old, recognising he was in full stride and rationalising that was an unhealthy state of affairs for Atletico. Geoffrey Kondogbia tripped Messi on the edge of the box in the 89th minute, but there would be no dramatic finale, the assailed Argentinian ripping a free-kick wide of the top left corner.

So it finished nil-nil and that might be interpreted as the dream outcome for Real Madrid, who sit third for now but would join Atletico on 77 points should they defeat fourth-placed Sevilla on Sunday.

For Barcelona, they are counting on their title rivals falling at the last now, with three rounds remaining. They would have gone top with a win here, but instead remain two points shy of Atletico.

Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente threatened in the first half for Atletico at Camp Nou, and the visitors had an abundance of the ball early in the second period too, but the chance of the game was probably the one that Barcelona substitute Ousmane Dembele headed over in the 85th minute, getting on the end of a cross that left-back Jordi Alba stood up to the far post but sending his effort far too high.

When the big chances fall to Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, playing like a competition winner against his former club here at times, there are days when that can spell terrible trouble for Barcelona.

Griezmann has now failed to score in the 12 LaLiga matches he has played against Atletico.

How Messi must wish he still had Luis Suarez by his side rather than on the opposing team.

Suarez, who was hurried out of Barcelona and welcomed with open arms by Atletico last September, was welcomed back to his old stamping ground with a big-screen video montage of some of his finest moments for the club.

He had a game-high four shots, three of which hit the target, and generally made a jolly old nuisance of himself without looking at his sharpest.

Messi was devastated to lose Suarez last year, but he has put that dismay behind him in recent months, with coach Ronald Koeman coaxing the best out of his talisman.

Barcelona now have 50 points from 20 LaLiga games in 2021, but their chaotic start to the season is catching up with them again. Too many points were dropped then, and for Barcelona to snatch the title this felt like a must-win game.

Koeman had an eagle's eye view, sitting high in the stands as he completed his touchline ban, unable to impose his presence and forced to settle for stalemate.

Like Oblak against the Messi missile, perhaps he saw it coming.

Lionel Messi will remain at Barcelona until the end of his career after president Joan Laporta's efforts in revitalising the club.

That is the view of former Barca full-back Gianluca Zambrotta, who believes the Messi transfer saga will be laid to rest once and for all.

It had looked likely Messi would leave, probably for Manchester City, at the start of this campaign but a dispute over the terms of his contract at Camp Nou proved a stumbling block too far.

The Argentina star has since helped Ronald Koeman's side win the Copa del Rey and they remain in the battle for LaLiga, sitting two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, who they face on Saturday. 

And Zambrotta, who played for the club between 2006 and 2008, feels Barca now represent a more attractive proposition for Messi since Laporta's election as president for a second time in March.

"They won already an important title in Spain and this is already something," the former Italy international told Stats Perform.

"They are in contention for La Liga title. On Saturday there will be the game versus Atletico Madrid, they are just two points down with Real Madrid, so Barcelona are a team that's still up there regardless of any problem.

"They have the chance to win La Liga too, although it will be a fight until the end.

"I see Barcelona as an improved team in recent months. Laporta has brought enthusiasm and made the place a bit more serene with the aim of keeping their most important player, Messi."

Asked if Barca will achieve that aim, he replied: "I guess so, Messi will never leave Barcelona unless in a distant future he will like to go back to Argentina, but I doubt it.

"I think he will stay at Barcelona until the end of his career."

So we come to it: the biggest LaLiga game between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid for seven years.

Forget the Champions League disappointments, the off-the-field murmurings about money problems and the lingering toxic cloud of the Super League, and get ready for a title showdown.

League leaders Atletico are two points clear of Real Madrid and Barca with four games to go. If the match produces a winner, that team will have the power to decide their own fate. A draw could be enough for Atleti. A defeat for either may prove fatal to their chances.

The last time these two teams met this late in the season with the title still on the line for both was on that famous final day in 2013-14, when Atleti went to Camp Nou knowing they would win the league if they did not lose the match. Alexis Sanchez broke the deadlock, Diego Godin equalised, and Atleti were crowned kings of Spain for the first time in 18 years.

Nothing will be decided this season on Saturday, of course, and as any LaLiga coach will tell the media at any given opportunity, "every game is a final". But this one feels a bit different. With Madrid and fourth-place Sevilla meeting this weekend, too, Barca and Atleti must sense this is a massive chance to get a hand on the trophy.

 

FORM IS TEMPORARY...

For the neutral, the fact we even have a title race in early May is something to celebrate. So dominant were Atleti in the first half of the season – 16 wins, two draws and one defeat from their first 19 games – that the rest were struggling to keep up.

In fact, according to Stats Perform AI, on January 22 Atleti had a 75.1 per cent chance of winning the title based on predicted results, while Barca's chances were just 12.4 per cent. As of April 30, however, that same predictor model gave Atleti a 38 per cent chance of winning the league, with Barca just behind on 32.6.

While Atleti have won only half of their past 16 league games, Barca have been one of Europe's most in-form sides in 2021, winning all but three of their 19 league matches since the turn of the year – and lifting the Copa del Rey. They have collected 49 points in 2021, the most in the division and eight more than the leaders.

History is also on their side in this fixture: the 1-0 defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano in the reverse game, when Yannick Carrasco grabbed a first-half winner, was their only league loss to Atleti in their most recent 21 meetings. They have not lost at home to them since Pepe Murcia's side ran out 3-1 winners in February 2006. Diego Simeone has drawn three and lost five of his league games in charge of Atleti at Camp Nou, making it his least favourite opposition ground as well as the scene of arguably his greatest coaching achievement.

 

OUTPERFORMING

This weekend's game is also the meeting of the best defence and attack in the division. Barca have scored 80 league goals, at least 19 more than anyone else, but Atleti have conceded a miserly 22. Attacks win games, defences win titles, as the adage goes.

Barca have actually faced the fewest shots (280) of any team in LaLiga this season, 40 fewer than Atleti, who are sixth best. However, the Blaugrana have conceded 33 goals from an Expected Goals Against figure of 37.0, whereas Atleti's 22 have come from an xGA of 33.7.

That highlights perhaps Atleti's greatest asset: based on Expected Goals on Target – an indicator of the quality of shots faced by a goalkeeper – Jan Oblak has prevented 7.1 goals this season, the highest figure in LaLiga. For teams in Europe's top-five leagues, no goalkeeper who has played more than 10 games this season has a better save percentage (79.1) than Atleti's Slovenian sensation.

 

MESSI V SUAREZ: BEST OF ENEMIES

Having missed the reverse fixture, this will be the first time Luis Suarez has faced Barca since his rather acrimonious departure at the end of last season. To date, the Uruguay striker – who has 166 career goals in LaLiga – has scored against all 30 of the teams he has faced in Spain's top flight.

Suarez has been a driving force of Atleti's title charge, even though he has only managed three goals in his most recent 11 games. With 19 goals in 28 league appearances overall in 2020-21, Suarez is averaging 0.79 per 90 minutes. Only one player has a better rate: Lionel Messi (0.92), the top scorer in the league with 28 and perhaps the most in-form player since the turn of the year.

Since January 1, Messi has scored 21 goals in 18 games, more than anyone else in Europe's top five leagues. Excluding one penalty scored, he has plundered 20 from an xG of just 11, giving him the biggest positive differential for anyone in those top five leagues in 2021. He is a man on a mission – perhaps his final mission for the club, if he doesn't agree to extend his contract.

Prevailing wisdom would suggest one of these former team-mates will decide this contest and, in turn, the fate of the title race. Barca and Atleti have waited seven years for a battle like this – who will hold their nerve?

 

Inter star Lautaro Martinez said he was "truly very close" to joining Lionel Messi's Barcelona before opting to remain at San Siro.

Martinez was heavily linked with a big-money transfer to LaLiga giants Barca prior to the 2020-21 season after starring for Inter in Serie A.

A switch to Camp Nou did not eventuate and Argentina international Martinez celebrated Inter's first Scudetto since 2009-10 last week.

Amid growing speculation over a contract extension in Milan, Martinez revealed the coronavirus pandemic derailed a move to Barca following discussions with countryman Messi.

"I was truly very close to joining Barcelona and I even talked it over with Messi," Martinez told ESPN Argentina.

"However, the Blaugrana had economic problems at that moment, so I decided to stay at Inter. It proved to be the right decision, especially as we then won the Scudetto.

"It's just incredible to win the title at such an important club."

Martinez arrived from Racing Club in 2018 and the 23-year-old has scored 47 goals across all competitions for Inter, including 15 in 34 Serie A appearances this term.

However, Martinez revealed Real Madrid attempted to prise him from boyhood club Racing Club before eventually joining Inter.

"Real Madrid did come for me twice when I was in the Racing youth team, but I wanted to make my name in Argentinean football first and only made the move to Europe when I was ready," he added.

"I do dream one day of returning to Racing. The fans are just as 'crazy' and passionate as the Inter ones."

Real Madrid and Kylian Mbappe – the two parties have long been tipped to come together.

Mbappe is out of contract at Paris Saint-Germain in 2022 and no closer to renewing his deal.

Madrid are reportedly moving closer to prising the France international to the Spanish capital.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE POISED FOR MADRID MOVE?

Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe is edging closer to joining LaLiga giants Real Madrid, according to Diario AS.

Mbappe has long been tipped to swap PSG for Madrid, though the Ligue 1 holds continue to try to re-sign the World Cup-winning forward.

PSG's Mbappe is determined to win the Champions League as he eyes the Santiago Bernabeu.


 

ROUND-UP

- Le Parisien, though, claims PSG are holding out hope on teaming Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi with Mbappe and Neymar in Paris. Messi is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and he has been linked with PSG and Manchester City. Neymar has also been linked with a Barca return. However, Le Parisien reports PSG are prioritising a move for Messi while trying to retain Neymar and Mbappe.

Lautaro Martinez is on the verge of signing a new contract with Serie A champions Inter, says Gazzetta dello Sport. The Inter forward has been linked with Barca previously.

- Tuttosport reports star Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is a primary transfer target for Serie A rivals Juventus. Donnarumma is out of contract at the end of the season and the Italy international has not agreed fresh terms with Milan.

Borussia Dortmund will ask for less than €100million (£86m) to sell Jadon Sancho amid interest from United, Chelsea and Liverpool, says Fabrizio Romano.

- The Mirror says Liverpool are eyeing Roma star Lorenzo Pellegrini as incoming Giallorossi boss Jose Mourinho looks to overhaul the squad in the Italian capital. The front page of Thursday's Gazzetto dello Sport, meanwhile, claims Mourinho is looking to bring Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic and Madrid's Isco to Roma.

- Soon-to-be free agent and City star Sergio Aguero is dreaming of a Barcelona move, according to Romano. InterTottenham and Chelsea have also emerged as options for the veteran forward.

Maurizio Sarri is a candidate to take charge of Milan if Stefano Pioli fails to guide the Rossoneri into the Champions League, claims Gazzetta dello Sport. Sarri was reportedly set to join Roma before Mourinho's appointment.

- Rennes sensation Eduardo Camavinga, Sassuolo's Manuel Locatelli and Mikel Merino of Real Sociedad are on Barca's shortlist to replace Sergio Busquets, reports Mundo Deportivo.

Lionel Messi is to be investigated by the Professional Football League (LFP) following an alleged breach of coronavirus-enforced health protocols.

It was claimed my numerous media outlets that Messi invited team-mates and their respective partners to his home after the 3-2 win over Valencia for a celebratory barbecue.

While it has been seen as another example of Messi seemingly being happy again in Barcelona following his attempt to leave last year, the apparent gathering has also attracted the wrong sort of publicity.

Local government has imposed restrictions that prohibit gatherings of more than six people.

"Meetings and/or family and social gatherings, both in the public and private spheres, are allowed as long as the maximum number of six people is not exceeded, except in the case of cohabitants," Catalan regulations state.

"However, family and social gatherings and/or encounters that take place in closed spaces, including homes, are recommended to be restricted as much as possible and limited to visits to dependent or vulnerable people and that are always from the same bubble of coexistence."

Stats Perform News understands LFP is looking into the allegations against Messi in an attempt to understand whether protocols have been violated.

ABC in Spain reports Barca have dismissed the idea of a violation breach due to the fact all the players work in the same bubble every day.

 

Lionel Messi scored the 50th free-kick goal of his Barcelona career to fuel hopes of a stunning LaLiga title triumph.

Messi's two goals in a 3-2 victory at Valencia on Sunday took him to 28 league strikes for the season, and that also meant the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner stayed ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in their friendly long-distance rivalry.

Barca captain Messi's seasonal tally is one more than Juventus' former Real Madrid talisman Ronaldo has managed in the current Serie A campaign, after the Portuguese netted twice in a win at Udinese earlier on Sunday.

Both are leading the way in their respective leagues, and only 36-goal Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski has scored more times than Messi in the top five European leagues in the current campaign.

Of Messi's stunning set-piece career haul, 39 of his free-kicks have come in LaLiga but few will have been as important as the curling strike that ultimately made sure of the points at Mestalla, giving Barcelona a 3-1 lead that was trimmed when Carlos Soler hit an excellent consolation.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman was a free-kick specialist himself, but he was absent from the touchline against Valencia.

That was because Koeman received a two-match touchline ban for the remonstrations during Thursday's shock defeat to Granada that saw him sent off.

In his place, Koeman's assistant Alfred Schreuder led the team, and it was down to the former Hoffenheim boss to dampen down excitement about this coming Saturday's clash between Barcelona and current leaders Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou.

Barcelona would go top of LaLiga by one point, for a little over 24 hours at least, should they win that game.

There are just four rounds of fixtures to come, and next week's games appear highly significant, given Real Madrid and Sevilla, the other two teams in title contention, also go head-to-head.

"We are all close," said Schreuder. "But we are there. We don't look at other teams, only at ourselves. Next week isn't a final, we have four matchdays in which we have to try to win.

"Yes, we trust our players to win LaLiga. We have reduced the gap to Atletico since January. We have competed well in these last three months."

The loss to Granada was a juddering result for Barcelona, but they had enough to fend off Valencia.

Messi missed a penalty but scored seconds later as the ball pinged around the Valencia 18-yard box, while Antoine Griezmann was also on target as Barcelona reacted positively to going behind early in the second half.

"We have shown character," Schreuder said. "We believed in what we were doing."

Gerard Pique predicted there will be major twists to come in LaLiga's title race after Barcelona beat Valencia 3-2 to crank up the pressure on Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

The Barcelona defensive stalwart said there is a determination within Ronald Koeman's squad to secure a league and cup double after already securing the Copa del Rey title.

Pique believes that would be a major statement by the current set of players, but it will take a big effort from Barcelona, who must face leaders Atletico at Camp Nou this coming Saturday.

Atletico hold a two-point advantage over Barcelona going into that game, while Real Madrid are also two points back from their city rivals. Sevilla, too, are clinging to the hope of fighting their way past the big three to snatch only their second Spanish league title. Sevilla and Madrid face each other next Sunday.

"We hope to be leaders after the next match day, but even if we are leaders, I would not put my hand in the fire that whoever comes out leader will win LaLiga," Pique told Movistar Plus.

He added: "It is not in our hands, but I think that if we win the four games that remain, we have many chances to win LaLiga. It would be a shame if after the effort we made in this second half of the season we wouldn't end up fighting for LaLiga until the end."

Lionel Messi's double strike took his haul to 28 goals in LaLiga this season, and it came despite him missing a penalty when Barcelona were 1-0 behind, just as he also did in the home game against Valencia in December.

As in that first match, Messi made amends by finding the net just seconds after failing from the spot.

Whereas Barcelona could only draw 2-2 at Camp Nou, in this Mestalla clash Messi's equaliser was the cue for a flurry of goals for the Blaugrana, with Antoine Griezmann prodding them ahead. Messi curled a stunning free-kick in off the right post to make it 3-1, before Carlos Soler hit a brilliant consolation for Valencia.

Messi's second goal was the 50th direct free-kick he has scored in his Barcelona career, with 39 of those coming in LaLiga, five in the Champions League, three in the Copa del Rey, two in the UEFA Super Cup and one in the Supercopa de Espana.

The penalty miss, meanwhile, signalled the first time that Messi has missed consecutive spot-kicks for Barcelona in all competitions, after previously failing to convert against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

Pique acknowledged Barcelona "had to suffer a little" after Soler's strike ramped up the pressure in the closing minutes.

Pique added: "We've shown ourselves and our fans that we want this league title. Winning the Copa was a first step, but we now want LaLiga. It would be a great message for this season and next season."

Barcelona withstood a scare to beat Valencia 3-2 and set up a grandstand Camp Nou clash with LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid next weekend.

Lionel Messi missed a penalty but scored twice, including a sublime free-kick, with Antoine Griezmann also on target at Mestalla.

The Barcelona goals came after the jolt of conceding early in the second half when Gabriel Paulista headed in from a corner to give the hosts the lead, with visiting boss Ronald Koeman banned from the touchline after his dismissal in the shock defeat to Granada.

Carlos Soler drove in a spectacular late second for Valencia, but Barcelona's success means they are back to just two points behind Atletico, and level again with Real Madrid, as the saga of the title race heads for a thrilling conclusion.

Pedri wasted a great chance in the third minute as he shot wide of the right post after being teed up by Frenkie de Jong, and Ronald Araujo's effort on the stretch from a teasing Messi free-kick was blocked away by goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.

Valencia's Goncalo Guedes should have scored early in the second half but allowed Marc-Andre ter Stegen to push his shot wide for a corner. However, Gabriel made no mistake when Soler swept the set-piece delivery across from the left, heading in at the far post.

Barcelona drew level in the 57th minute through Messi, despite him failing from the spot. Toni Lato conceded the spot-kick after jabbing his right arm at a floated Messi pass, and although the Argentinian saw his tame penalty parried by Cillessen, Pedri's shot as the ball pinged around the box was deflected to Barcelona's record scorer, who netted from close range.

The visitors went ahead six minutes later when De Jong's powerful header from Jordi Alba's cross was well saved by Cillessen but palmed only as far as Griezmann, who tucked home.

Messi's second goal was a 69th-minute curling free-kick from a central starting point that found the back of the net via the inside of the right post, giving the goalkeeper little chance, a speciality of Barca's captain.

It was arguably topped by Soler's brilliant long-range finish in the 83rd minute, but Valencia could not find a leveller.

Will Lionel Messi stay or leave?

The superstar Barcelona captain is set to become a free agent, though the LaLiga giants are determined to re-sign Messi.

Paris Saint-Germain are interested but Messi could reportedly extend his Camp Nou career.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI SET FOR BARCA STAY?

Lionel Messi is closer to staying at Barcelona than joining Paris Saint-Germain, according to L'Equipe.

Messi's future has dominated headlines, with his contract due to expire at season's end amid interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

Barca are keen to re-sign Messi, who is encouraged by the Copa del Rey triumph and Joan Laporta's plans, despite an offer from PSG.

 

ROUND-UP

Barca have reached out to PSG regarding a possible reunion with Neymar, however, RAC1 says the Ligue 1 holders are not willing to sell the Brazilian superstar.

Everton are plotting a bid for soon-to-be free agent and City star Sergio Aguero, reports the Daily Star. Aguero will leave the Etihad Stadium on a free transfer and the forward has been linked with Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter and Tottenham.

- Fabrizio Romano says Leicester City are working on a deal to sign Lille star Boubakary Soumare, who has previously been linked with Manchester United, Tottenham, Inter and Napoli.

- The Sun claims Borussia Dortmund have joined United and PSG in the battle sign Brighton and Hove Albion defender Ben White.

- Sky Sport Italia claims Milan ultras met with star goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and demanded he sits out the fixture against Serie A rivals Juventus if he does not renew his contract. Donnarumma is set to become a free agent and he is yet to re-sign amid reports he is in talks with Juve. The Italy international has also been linked with United, Chelsea and PSG.

United are prepared to sell Paul Pogba if he does not commit to a new contract, according to The Sun. Juve and Real Madrid are reportedly eyeing the French star. It comes as The Sun also claims United are not willing to part ways with Donny van de Beek following a difficult first season at Old Trafford.

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