Ousmane Dembele thumped in a 90th-minute winner as Barcelona beat Real Valladolid 1-0 and cut Atletico Madrid's advantage at the top of LaLiga to a solitary point.

Ronald Koeman's resurgent side had won their previous five top-flight matches but were short of their best for much of the first half, with Kenan Kodro hitting the crossbar for Valladolid.

Lionel Messi and his team-mates tried to crank through the gears in the second half but struggled to find a breakthrough, even after Oscar Plano was sent off 11 minutes from time for a cynical foul on Dembele.

The France winger would have the final word, swiping home on the volley after Ronald Araujo made a nuisance of himself on the end of Frenkie de Jong's cross - setting up next weekend's pivotal Clasico showdown perfectly.

Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was back in action for the first time since Germany's humiliating 2-1 defeat to North Macedonia and he was relieved to see Kodro's header cannon to safety off the bar.

Messi won a free-kick in the 15th minute and clipped wide but the visitors continued to acquit themselves well.

Roque Mesa grazed the top of the netting with a speculative strike before Barca let the playmaker run unchallenged for around 30 yards to blast over.

Barcelona belatedly found some rhythm before the interval and Pedri linked up nicely with Messi to fire in a rasping low drive that Jordi Masip tipped against the right post.

Koeman's front three were all involved before the hour – Messi releasing Dembele to draw a brilliant low stop from Masip, with Antoine Griezmann sending an improvised diving header wide on the rebound.

Jordi Alba survived appeals for a penalty after the ball flicked off his hand inside the Barca box and Plano sliced wide on another threatening break.

A yellow card would arguably have been suffice for Plano's petulance and Valladolid buckled at the last in what felt like a huge moment in the title race.

Erling Haaland continues to be linked with a move to Barcelona, but head coach Ronald Koeman has insisted the final decision over a move for the Borussia Dortmund striker will be made by president Joan Laporta.

Barca are one of a number of elite teams to have been credited with an interest in the Norway international, who has scored 49 goals in 50 appearances for Dortmund in his 15 months at the club.

Talk of a possible switch to Camp Nou intensified on Thursday when Haaland's agent Mino Raiola and father Alf-Inge were pictured in Barcelona reportedly on their way to a meeting with Laporta.

The pair were later spotted in Madrid and reports from Spain suggest talks are planned with a number of English clubs next week for arguably the most in-demand player in world football.

Koeman confirmed at a pre-match news conference on Sunday that he has held talks with recently elected president Laporta over possible targets, but he was unwilling to discuss any specific interest in Haaland.

"We discuss future plans, but the decision is made by the president," Koeman said ahead of Monday's clash with Real Valladolid.

"Everyone, including the president, is working to improve the team knowing the club's economic situation, which is not the best. 

"They have shown me from day one that they will try to improve this situation and, in terms of signings, everything depends on the possibilities we have. 

"It is normal to talk in the last part of the season about the next one. Now I am not interested in the names that come out, we have to be focused on the final games we have left to play."

Haaland has 21 goals in 22 Bundesliga games this term, adding another 10 from six matches in the Champions League, a competition in which he tops the scoring charts.

Asked again if a move for Haaland has already been discussed with Laporta, Koeman said: "I am not going to talk about players who are not ours

"We have used the break to have meetings, to talk about this season, about the next one - this happens in all the clubs in the world."

A move for Haaland could be directly linked to Lionel Messi's Camp Nou future, with the superstar forward set to be out of contract at the end of the season.

The club's all-time leading goalscorer may be persuaded to sign a new deal if Barca can signal their ambitions by bringing in exciting talent Haaland.

"Messi's contract is an important matter and we are doing our all so that he stays at the club for many more years," Koeman said.

"But we are talking about tomorrow's game, which has all our thoughts right now, not next season. The future is down to the president and his team. As a coach, and as players, all we can do is focus on each game."

The 20 goals Haaland has scored in 14 games since making his Champions League debut for Salzburg in September 2019 compares to eight for Messi from the same number of outings.

Haaland's average of a goal every 53.95 minutes in Europe's elite club competition is the second best return of any player to have scored at least five times over that same timeframe, behind only Chelsea's Olivier Giroud (six goals in eight games for a return of 52.67).

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."

Barcelona have extended young prospect Alex Collado's contract until June 2023.

The 21-year-old is the captain of Barca's B team, having joined the famed La Masia youth set-up as an under-10.

Barca exercised an option in Collado's deal to keep the attacking midfielder at Camp Nou for another two years.

Collado, who made his first-team debut against Celta Vigo in 2019, when Ernesto Valverde was at the helm.

He has featured 77 times for the B team, scoring 16 goals, and will hope to play his way into Ronald Koeman's plans.

Miralem Pjanic is determined to stay and fight for his Barcelona future despite a disappointing first season at Camp Nou.

Bosnia-Herzegovina playmaker Pjanic joined Barca last year in a deal that saw fellow midfielder Arthur move in the opposite direction to Juventus.

Each European superpower bowing out at the last-16 stage of the Champions League indicates the difficult situations both players entered with their new employers, but while injuries have occasionally hindered Arthur's progress, Pjanic has started to appear surplus to requirements under Ronald Koeman.

Pedri's development into a regular first-team fixture has not helped the 30-year-old's cause and Riqui Puig has been preferred as a midfield option off the bench in recent weeks.

An overall upturn in Barca's form, with a LaLiga and Copa del Rey double a possibility, has done plenty for Koeman's standing, with reports suggesting recently elected president Joan Laporta is happy for the Dutchman to continue as head coach.

Whoever is in charge next term, Pjanic told Mundo Deportivo he does not intend to go anywhere.

"I did not sign for Barca to leave the following year," he said.

"I signed to make history in a club that had been on my path for many years."

Pjanic first worked his way into the affections of Barcelona fans more than a decade ago, when he scored as Lyon dumped Real Madrid out of the Champions League in 2009.

He explained that the Blaugrana were interested in his services as a youngster before almost making the move in 2019 before Antoine Griezmann accounted for most of the transfer budget.

"I decided to start my career in France but I always followed what Barca did," he said.

"Two years ago, [former Barca sporting director Eric] Abidal wanted to sign me, we were talking but the club invested in Antoine and there was no money left for me.

"I had to wait live the dream of being a Barca player. I came to Barca because of my game and my experience as a winner, that's what they asked me to contribute when I signed. 

"They told me that my character and my experience would be vital to grow a generation of young people from La Masia who were climbing very strongly."

Despite his performances serving as a personal complication, Pjanic hailed Pedri as a player of "special intelligence… who will go very far" and also reflected upon a "spectacular" relationship with Lionel Messi, who "explains things about the environment that at first escaped me".

He conceded his relationship with Koeman is more distant, but his "dream" of winning the Champions League at Barcelona remains.

"If I don't play, the next morning I am training harder than ever so that the coaches will notice that I am not giving up," he added.

"Koeman doesn't talk much to players so what I have to do is keep working to be ready when he needs me."

Barcelona have reportedly joined the queue chasing Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

Haaland is a player in demand following his exploits for Bundesliga outfit Dortmund.

The Norway international could be among a number of new recruits at Camp Nou.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND WANTED AT CAMP NOU

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman is leading the club's recruitment this off-season and has identified Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland as a key target, according to Diario AS.

Haaland has been linked with Barca, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Liverpool.

Koeman is also reportedly eyeing City defender Eric Garcia, Lyon captain Memphis Depay and soon-to-be Liverpool free agent Georginio Wijnaldum.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fresh from netting a hat-trick to knock Tottenham out of the Europa League, Dinamo Zagreb's Mislav Orsic has been linked with a move to London rivals Arsenal by The Sun, which claims the Gunners are looking at the Croatian attacker as an off-season signing.

- Marca claims Arsenal will not be able to sign on-loan Martin Odegaard on a permanent deal as parent club Real Madrid see him as part of their long-term future plans.

Roma want either Maurizio Sarri or Massimiliano Allegri to be their next coach to replace Paulo Fonseca, according to Messaggero.

- Calciomercato says rumoured Premier League target Franck Kessie has rejected Milan's latest contract extension offer.

- Schalke's California-born 20-year-old Matthew Hoppe is hot property and Valencia are the latest club to join the chase, alongside TottenhamBarcelona, Ajax and PSV, according to AS.

- The Sun reports in-form Leicester City forward Kelechi Iheanacho will sign a new deal with the club.

Ronald Koeman is a "great coach" who has expertly handled Barcelona's difficulties this season, according to defender Ronald Araujo. 

Koeman, who was appointed last August on a two-year contract, has had to manage the fallout from Lionel Messi's ultimately unsuccessful transfer request ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. 

A failure to get past the last-16 stage in the Champions League was a major disappointment, but a superb recent run in LaLiga has given them a chance of catching leaders Atletico Madrid. 

Sunday's 6-1 thumping of Real Sociedad – a ninth consecutive top-flight away win – lifted them to within four points of Diego Simeone's side heading into the international break.

Uruguayan Araujo, who has played in 15 LaLiga games this season after featuring in just six during his debut campaign in 2019-20, has been impressed with Koeman's efforts and wants him to remain at the helm beyond this season. 

"It's very good that the board has confidence in Koeman because the boss has shown that he is a great coach," the 22-year-old told TV3. 

"He is very good with the team and the locker room. This relationship is very important. I am very happy that he can continue with us because he brings a lot to us, especially the young people.

"The work he had in front of him was not at all easy, considering how the whole situation was. But he is a coach with a lot of character, who knows how to deal with these issues, and the coaching staff have done a very good job. 

"We are working well and that translates into the way the locker room is and the results."

Araujo also declared his admiration for Messi and hopes Barca's talisman stays at Camp Nou beyond this season.

On Sunday, Messi overtook Xavi as the player with the most appearances for Barca (768), six days after the 33-year-old scored a 20th LaLiga goal for the 13th successive season – another record.

The Argentina forward has been involved in more goals in 2021 than any other player across Europe's 'top five' leagues, but he still has not tied his future to the Catalan club, with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain reportedly interested in signing him. 

"I hope he stays with us next year and many more years to come," Araujo added. "Leo is fine, I see him very happy. He works a lot, not only in matches, but also in training. 

"Messi trains like a beast and that's very good because he is the captain and he is a reference, and he spreads it to us all, to the rest of the team and to the young people."

Barca host Real Valladolid in LaLiga on April 5 after the international break, followed by El Clasico against Real Madrid five days later.

Few individuals have had such an enduring impact upon what we think constitutes beautiful football than Johan Cruyff.

As a playmaking forward in the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s, Cruyff oozed inimitable style as he bent games to his will and thrilled the world with his eponymous turn.

An icon of his era and arguably the greatest European footballer ever to play the game, Cruyff's impact as a coach was somehow even more profound.

The irresistible approach of his Barcelona "Dream Team" in the early 1990s brought a maiden European trophy to Camp Nou along with four consecutive LaLiga titles. It is a legacy that sets the standard for the Catalan giants to this day

Beyond that, he switched on a generation of fans to the frictionless wonder of Barca's positional play, not to mention a host of tacticians whose deeds continued to burnish his considerable reputation.

On the fifth anniversary of his death, we look at five of Cruyff's most notable disciples.

FRANK RIJKAARD

"He is like the Godfather of Dutch football," Frank Rijkaard said of the man who coached him at Ajax in the mid-1980s before his tactical reputation was firmly established at Barcelona, while Cruyff's great mentor Rinus Michels also coached Rijkaard with the national team

Even though Rijkaard was not associated with Cruyff's most famous team, he followed in his old boss' footsteps by taking over as Barcelona head coach following a relative fallow period in 2003.

The arrival of Ronaldinho revitalised the ailing Blaugrana and Rijkaard enjoyed the fruits of La Masia's finest generation, as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi came to the fore.

Back-to-back LaLiga titles and the 2005-06 Champions League were the highlights of a 273-game reign. Only Cruyff (421) has led Barca more often in all competitions.

PEP GUARDIOLA  

After the Rijkaard era ambled to a bloated end, Barca turned to the man who has done more than any other to keep Cruyff's vision at the forefront of world football.

"Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it," said Pep Guardiola, whose restoration sparkled beyond all reasonable expectations.

Barca won three consecutive LaLiga crowns and two Champions Leagues – the first as part of a 2008-09 treble.

Unlike Cruyff, who never coached again after leaving Barca, and Rijkaard, who maybe should have followed suit and not endured underwhelming stints with Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia, Guardiola spread the gospel far and wide.

His Bayern Munich won three out of three Bundesligas, while Manchester City have set a record 100-points margin in the Premier League and are closing in on the third top-flight title of Guardiola's trophy-laden tenure.

ERNESTO VALVERDE

One of Guardiola's legacies after leaving Barcelona was any potential successors would have a stronger chance of getting the job if they had a link to Cruyff, La Masia or both. Luis Enrique followed Guardiola's path from Barca B to first team and even emulated the treble.

As a back-up forward at Camp Nou between 1988 and 1990, Valverde was an unflashy squad member of Cruyff went about empire building, a description that could also be applied to a strong coaching career as he earned respect during spells in charge of Espanyol, Olympiacos and Athletic Bilbao.

His Cruyff association, as much as those efforts in the dugout was a factor in him being appointed to replace Luis Enrique in 2017.

Despite inheriting the saga of Neymar's departure and an increasingly muddled sporting policy, Valverde won back-to-back LaLiga titles and helmed a record 43-match unbeaten run in LaLiga between April 2017 and May 2018 that began under his predecessor.

RONALD KOEMAN

The shambles that followed under Quique Setien, culminating in a shambolic 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in last year's Champions League quarter-finals, spoke well of the tight ship Valverde ran. After that failed experiment, Barca reverted to a familiar type.

Ronald Koeman became the club's fifth Dutch head coach after Michels, Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Rijkaard.

Despite outstripping Mauricio Pochettino's win percentage at Southampton by 47.4 to 35.2, Koeman's work in the Premier League did not have other elite clubs beating down his door – much less his spell at Valencia.

His first season in the job he craved has not been without considerable turbulence, but a recent switch to a particularly Cruyffian 3-4-3 (hello, Frenkie de Jong in the middle of the back three!) and the apparent backing of recently elected president Joan Laporta suggests brighter days ahead.

JULEN LOPETEGUI

Even less prominent than Valverde as a Cruyff player, Julen Lopetegui was Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper between 1994 and 1997. But again, an unshakeable impression was made.

"As soon as I had the first training session with Johan I thought 'this is different to all other coaches', he was brilliant," he told BBC Sport in 2019.

"He planted the seed for other coaches to take on his ideas and develop those ideas. He was one step ahead of the rest."

The same could not be said for Lopetegui as he exited two dream jobs with Spain and Real Madrid in the space of a nightmare six months, but a cathartic Europa League triumph with Sevilla last season showed a coach impressively rebuilding his reputation.

Among coaches to have managed at least 40 Sevilla games in LaLiga, none can better Lopetegui's 54.5 per cent win percentage.

Could Harry Kane end up at Real Madrid?

Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland is one of Europe's most sought-after and expensive players, while Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe also commands a hefty fee.

With that in mind, Tottenham's Kane has reportedly emerged as a transfer target in the Spanish capital.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID ADD KANE TO LIST

Real Madrid are interested in signing Tottenham star Harry Kane, according to SER Deportivo.

Madrid have been heavily linked with in-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe.

But Madrid's hierarchy reportedly feel a deal to prise Kane from Tottenham may be easier.

 

ROUND-UP

- Wednesday's Marca and Diario AS newspapers are dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo. Marca claims Ronaldo would exit Juventus to return to Madrid, who he left in 2018. Diario AS says Juve are ready to listen to offers for the five-time Ballon d'Or winner. Ronaldo has also been linked with former club Manchester United.

- Sport reports Manchester City defender Eric Garcia will join Barcelona on a five-year deal. It will be the first major signing under new president Joan Laporta as the LaLiga giants also eye Haaland and look to re-sign superstar captain Lionel Messi, who has been tipped to join either PSG or City on a free transfer at season's end.

- TV3 claims Ronald Koeman will continue as Barca head coach in 2021-22 following talks with Laporta. RB Leipzig's Julian Nagelsmann and club great Xavi had been linked.

Inter are ready to reignite their interest in Udinese star Rodrigo De Paul, claims Calciomercato. The Serie A leaders have previously been linked with the Argentina midfielder. Antonio Conte's Inter are also tracking Madrid outcast Isco, according to Sport.

- L'Equipe claims United are considering a move for Tottenham captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris amid doubts over David de Gea. Milan star Gianluigi Donnarumma has also emerged as a possible target.

Bayern Munich are in talks to sign Madrid attacker Lucas Vazquez on a free transfer, according to AS.

Liverpool, Juventus and Roma are among clubs interested in Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez, says AS. The 31-year-old is out of contract at the end of 2021-22.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said the race for the LaLiga title will be close following Sunday's demolition of Real Sociedad.

Lionel Messi made history as he led Barcelona to a 6-1 thrashing of Sociedad – a result that moved the Catalan giants within four points of leaders Atletico Madrid.

Messi – in his club-record 768th appearance in all competitions – scored twice, Sergino Dest had a brace, while Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele also struck for the visitors.

As Barca loom large with 10 matches remaining, Koeman told reporters: "I think the win sends an important message – but mostly to ourselves. It shows the team is comfortable and confident in its own abilities.

"Physically we're in a strong place as well and we've improved a lot but it doesn't mean today's result and performance will be replicated in future games.

"There's still a lot of games left to play in LaLiga but we are still behind Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have also improved.

"They are much stronger as well. It's going to be a tough fight until the last game of the season. Therefore, we have to keep going game by game."

Barcelona have won their last nine games away from home in LaLiga, keeping six clean sheets to level their third-best consecutive winning run on the road.

Koeman's Barca also scored six goals in an away game across all competitions for the first time since February 2017.

Messi, meanwhile, has now been involved in more goals (23) than any other player in the top five European leagues in 2021 – 16 goals and seven assists.

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman was delighted to mark his 58th birthday with an "incredible" 6-1 LaLiga thrashing of Real Sociedad.

The Catalans closed back to within four points of league leaders Atletico Madrid on Sunday with arguably their finest performance under Koeman.

Two goals each from Sergino Dest and Lionel Messi – who made a record 768th appearance for the club – and further strikes from Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele secured an emphatic victory, Barca's ninth in a row in the top flight.

Koeman, who was thrilled to see the goals spread out among four players and not only come from his captain, was proud at the way Barca made life so uncomfortable for their hosts.

"Without a doubt, it's the best present they could have given me," said Koeman. "I'm also happy for Griezmann and [Jordi] Alba, who've had their birthdays, and who played a great game.

"Scoring six goals at Real Sociedad is incredible. They tried to press us but, when they saw they couldn't, they took a step back.

"The first goal made us very calm and the second was almost decisive. We gave a really good impression of ourselves. We pressed really well without the ball and we were very effective.

"There's a long way to go. It won't be decided yet. Atletico are strong, but you saw against Alaves that it's not easy to win a game. Real Madrid are also in the fight; we can't forget them.

"We leave with a great result and a demonstration that we're going to go for everything. It's important that it's not just Messi scoring the goals because that makes it more difficult to defend against us."

Barca head into the international break trailing Atletico by 10 points after Diego Simeone's side claimed a hard-fought 1-0 win over Deportivo Alaves.

The Blaugrana look the sharpest of the big three in Spain at present and Koeman thinks they have improved significantly in recent weeks.

"I can't say we're not going to lose any game from here until the rest of the season, but it's clear that we're on a good path. We're very strong mentally and physically," he said.

"We've had many difficulties since the start of the season. We've changed things; any team needs time to learn. We've had some ups and downs in LaLiga, with defensive mistakes and a lack of effectiveness. But it's obvious the team has moved on."

Ronald Koeman and new president Joan Laporta will map out Barcelona's future during the international break, and going Dutch would be in keeping with Camp Nou tradition.

The club which has been a magnet to Netherlands greats of the past may see more Oranje stars arriving, with Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said to be a prime target.

According to the Sunday Times, Wijnaldum has a pre-contract agreement to move to Barcelona when his Anfield deal expires at the end of the season.

Reuniting with former national team coach Koeman would hold obvious appeal to Wijnaldum, who has been circumspect about his Liverpool future.

But what would Wijnaldum bring to a team already in the hunt for a domestic double? At the age of 30, would this signing make sense for Barca?


What options do Barcelona already have?

It may not be a vintage midfield of the type Pep Guardiola was blessed with, Sergio Busquets being the last survivor of that era in the centre of the pitch, but Barca are not badly off for talent.

Busquets and Miralem Pjanic bring the experience, Pedri the youthful exuberance and Frenkie de Jong is proven quality as he approaches his mid-20s.

They have the attacking option of Philippe Coutinho – who has been out injured since December – while Riqui Puig is a talent who Koeman appears unsure about.

Busquets and De Jong look a strong midfield pair, covering plenty of the pitch, with De Jong the likelier to roam away from the central channel.

 

What difference would Wijnaldum make?

At the age of 30, 'Gini' would not be bringing down the average age, even though that must surely soon become a priority for Koeman.

The head coach knows all about Wijnaldum's game from their time together in the Dutch national set-up, so there is a trust factor there, and to get an international player on a free transfer, albeit with high wages, could be seen as a good deal.

Yet to delve into this season's data, there appear to be very few areas where Wijnaldum excels above Barcelona's current crop.

Three goals and zero assists in 40 matches from Wijnaldum pales against what Pedri (three goals, six assists) and De Jong (six goals, five assists) have achieved from a similar number of games; however, it puts him ahead of Busquets (no goals, two assists) and Pjanic (no goals, no assists).

Wijnaldum's 18 chances created is fewer than what each member of that Barcelona quartet has achieved (Pedri 49, De Jong 38, Busquets 30, Pjanic 20), and although he is considered strong in the air, his 36 aerial battles won is bettered by De Jong and Busquets (both 45).

The former Newcastle United and PSV man has taken more shots (31) than any of that Barca midfield four, with Pedri (27) leading the way among those Blaugrana players, but he has too often failed to be clinical.

There are defensive qualities to Wijnaldum's game, and he has made 201 ball recoveries for Liverpool. Busquets (203), De Jong (234) and Pedri (173) suggest Barca are already handily equipped on that front.

If Wijnaldum is being signed as a replacement – say, if Pjanic is moved on to bring in such much-needed funds – then there could be merit in his arrival.

Otherwise, he looks to be just extra midfield stock.

 

Tackling a big issue

Wijnaldum's tackle success rate has nosedived in the 2020-21 season, having already been on a gradual decline during his career in England.

During his year at Newcastle in the 2015-16 season, Wijnaldum won 84.21 per cent of his tackles, and after three seasons of 60-plus percentage success with Liverpool, his rate dipped to 53.19 last term, though in a championship-winning campaign that hardly felt significant.

This season, however, it has crashed to 29.63 per cent, with his performance indicative of Liverpool's lame follow-up to their Premier League title triumph.

Such a rate would not cut it at Barca, where Puig (37.5 per cent) is the only midfielder with tackling success under 50 per cent this season. Busquets (58.46 per cent), De Jong (58.33) and Pedri (57.89) are the engine room players who have done most of the heavy lifting, setting the sort of standard any newcomer must expect to achieve.

Koeman favourite he may be, but Wijnaldum, a Champions League and Premier League winner with Liverpool, cannot live off past glories.

Barcelona will need an upswing to follow that downswing. After all, when Koeman said he wanted to bring a lad in, he really meant a Gini with bottle.

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 will head into important talks with new Barcelona president Joan Laporta during the international break.

Head coach Koeman declared that was the plan as he spoke on Saturday, a day ahead of the trip to face Real Sociedad in LaLiga.

The Dutchman's future was a major topic of discussion during the club elections, but there are a range of major issues that must be resolved between the dressing room and the boardroom.

Not least among those is the future of captain and record goalscorer Lionel Messi, whose contract expires in June, while the club's transfer budget and ambitions are also vital matters ahead of the close season.

Koeman was appointed last August on a two-year contract, and a failure to get past the last-16 stage in the Champions League was a major disappointment.

Barcelona remain in the hunt for domestic league and cup glory, though, and Koeman is keen to hear in the coming fortnight what Laporta is planning for the team's future.

Koeman said: "After tomorrow's game we have a break and we will have time to talk about the future of this team.

"We will take advantage of these two weeks to talk about players, signings and get to know each other. It is a time to be more together."

That was an answer given in response to the question of whether he was intending to meet with Laporta again, having already had brief talks.

Koeman said it was "important" to have an established figurehead at the club, after the reign of previous president Josep Maria Bartomeu dissolved amid considerable acrimony last October.

"It is reassuring to have someone who is the face of the club, but nothing changes for our work," Koeman said.

Laporta this week backed Koeman, saying: "Ronald, you have our confidence. We want to go back to that success story between Barca and the Champions League. This year we have to go for LaLiga and for the cup."

That simply confirmed what Koeman had already been told privately in the wake of the Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain.

"We must continue in this way so that the results reinforce it. Hopefully it will last for a long time."

The impending talks mean Sunday's clash at Anoeta is one that may take on extra significance for Koeman.

Should Barcelona win, that would ramp up pressure on leaders Atletico Madrid, who face Deportivo Alaves on Sunday. The closer they get to Atletico, the more impressive Koeman's leadership appears.

Barcelona are unbeaten in 17 games in LaLiga and have crept from mid-table to the point where they are just four points behind Atletico.

Koeman may privately ask Laporta about the prospects of signing Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund's free-scoring Norway international who has also been linked to Real Madrid.

But Haaland is not a player that Koeman is prepared to discuss in public, no matter how the question is put to him.

When asked on Saturday how he rated Haaland, and whether he was a player he would like to coach, Koeman pulled down the shutters, saying: "Out of respect I will not talk about a player who is not ours."

Joan Laporta has promised to do everything he can to persuade Lionel Messi to stay at Barcelona, as well as offering an assurance to head coach Ronald Koeman amid speculation over his future.

Laporta was officially unveiled as Barca's new president at a ceremony on Wednesday, having seen off competition from Victor Font and Toni Freixa during an election staged on March 7. 

It will be his second time in the role at Camp Nou; his previous stint from 2003 and 2010 saw the club win LaLiga on four occasions, as well as the Champions League twice.  

However, he returns now with Barcelona dealing with financial issues off the field and great uncertainty over the future of their best player, the talismanic Messi. 

The club's all-time leading scorer is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, though Laporta is determined to retain the "best player in history".

"I'll do everything I can to try to convince Leo to stay," he said in a speech that covered a wide range of topics, including the importance of the club's academy system. 

"We will try because he's the best player in history and, sorry for telling you here, but you know how much I love you, and Barca also loves you." 

Messi has scored 27 goals in all competitions this season under Koeman, who has Barca in contention for the league title in Spain following a shaky start to his debut campaign in charge. 

They are also through to the Copa del Rey final – Athletic Bilbao will be their opponents on April 17 – but hopes of Champions League glory were dashed by PSG at the last-16 stage. 

Still, with the team on a 17-game unbeaten streak in LaLiga, Laporta made clear his confidence in Koeman, who – like Messi – was present inside the ground for the event. 

"Ronald, you have our confidence," he said. 

"We want to go back to that success story between Barca and the Champions League. This year we have to go for LaLiga and for the cup."

Laporta described Barca as an "engine for optimism" despite their current financial plight, something he will be prioritising at the start of his new reign. 

"The economic situation is a priority for us," Laporta announced. "We have the priority of making the club economically sustainable.  

"We have a shock plan for it. The situation does not scare us. The people who accompany us are not scared by these things. 

"If we have to make decisions in the interest of Barca, we will make them."

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