Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has denied the club hired a social media contractor in order to discredit the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Pep Guardiola.

Spanish radio network Cadena SER reported on Monday that an independent social media company was contracted by Barca to boost the public profile of the current board of directors.

The reports also stated the company was tasked with undermining individuals with strong links to the club, including current stars Messi and Pique, former coach Guardiola and midfield icon Xavi.

Following a strong statement of denial on Monday, Bartomeu, while acknowledging Barca had hired I3 Ventures – the company in question – has reiterated the club's stance.

"I want to make clear, for the [Barca] members, and everyone, because I have heard different versions," Bartomeu said at the XIV Vazquez Montalban International Journalism Awards.

"First of all, I have to say that Barcelona haven't hired any service to discredit anyone. Neither players, nor the executives, ex-presidents. That is totally false.

"So we will defend ourselves where necessary regarding this subject, by all means, and in front of anyone who accuses us of doing this. I repeat again, it is false that Barcelona, in any case, has hired no one to discredit anyone."

However, with I3 Ventures connected to one of the accounts named in the reports – Respeto y Deporte (Respect and Sport) – Bartomeu confirmed Barca have ended their relationship with the contractor.

"It is true that at the end of 2017, Barcelona hired a service to monitor different areas of the club in the social media, as the major of the clubs have," he added.

"After the confirmation that one of the accounts linked to one of this company's suppliers have made inappropriate commentaries about people related to our organisation, I have given instructions personally to terminate the contract with this company.

"I want to make something clear. Regarding to the question that "if we have ordered anyone to monitor the social media", the answer is yes and we will still do it. 

"It is the responsibility of this club to know what is going on and what it is being said around the world, always to preserve Barcelona.

"Regarding to the question "If we have ordered to discredit people or institutions through social media" the answer is no and we will persecute everyone who accuses us of it."

One story is dominating the sporting agenda in Spain on Saturday: Xavi's potential return to Barcelona.

The Catalan giants have reportedly earmarked the club great to take over from the under-pressure Ernesto Valverde at the end of the season, and held informal discussions with him on Friday in Doha.

Xavi, 39, is currently coach at Al Sadd but would likely relish a return to Camp Nou, where he won eight LaLiga titles and four Champions League trophies during a glittering playing career.

A strong affinity with a club is not a guarantee of success, however, and we have taken a look at eight other examples of players returning to manage teams they starred for.

 

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping away in May 2018, only to return 10 months later.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job. He is now back in Serie A and thriving with the Old Lady's bitter rivals Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Like Lampard, Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern Munich, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try and save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for AC Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league finish in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

Xavi seems set to return to Barcelona as head coach, replacing Ernesto Valverde.

Valverde is under pressure again at the helm of the LaLiga giants after Thursday's Supercopa de Espana semi-final loss to Atletico Madrid.

And, it seems Barca are wasting no time finding a replacement.

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA OFFER XAVI DEAL TO REPLACE VALVERDE

Barcelona have offered Al Sadd boss Xavi a two-and-a-half-year deal to replace Valverde, according to AS.

Xavi's potential return to Camp Nou, where he won eight LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues in a glittering playing career, is dominating headlines in Spain.

The cover of Sport reads 'Earthquake Xavi', while Marca also reports that Barcelona have offered the job to the former midfielder.

ROUND-UP

- Bruno Fernandes. Manchester United. Here we go again. Record reports Sporting CP officials met with the Premier League club with a move potentially going ahead in January. The Daily Mail says United are considering a £55m (€64.6m) move for Fernandes, who they were reportedly interested in during the close season.

- Staying at Old Trafford and The Sun reports Manchester United are eyeing a £40m move for West Ham defender Issa Diop, who is also apparently a target for Chelsea.

- Manchester United are at the centre of plenty of speculation this month, including a potential exit for Ashley Young. CalcioMercato reports Inter want the 34-year-old and the Serie A side are offering Young – who is out of contract at season's end – a deal until 2021.

- Gedson Fernandes is seemingly set for a move to London, but to which club remains to be seen. The Guardian reports West Ham fear they will miss out on the Benfica midfielder to Tottenham.

- Out of contract at the end of the season, Hugo Vallejo appears set for a Malaga exit. AS reports Real Madrid are considering making a move for the forward this month before sending the 19-year-old out on loan until the end of 2019-20. Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia are also reportedly interested in Vallejo.

- Meanwhile, Barca have had an offer of €6m for midfielder Matheus Fernandes rejected by Palmeiras, according to Globo Esporte.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola will target the Champions League as Liverpool run away with the Premier League title, according to Xavi.

City are eyeing a third consecutive Premier League crown under Guardiola, however, the defending champions are third and 14 points adrift of unbeaten rivals Liverpool – who have a game in hand – after 20 matches.

Amid doubts over Guardiola's long-term future in Manchester, former Barcelona star Xavi believes the Spaniard will prioritise the Champions League ahead of a blockbuster last-16 showdown against Real Madrid.

"Pep is a born winner," Al Sadd head coach Xavi, who played under Guardiola at Camp Nou, told The Mirror. "It will hurt him that Manchester City are so far behind Liverpool in the league - and he won't give up.

"He will be realistic though. The gap is a big one and at the moment it doesn't look likely that they can make it three titles in a row.

"With that in mind, I think there's a big chance Pep will prioritise the Champions League.

"They will be two big games coming up against Real Madrid - and maybe there will be a chance to rest players before these games that they wouldn't have if they were in a title race.

"Pep will want to win every trophy that he can - but if you'd asked him at the start of the season what he would prefer, I'm sure he would have said the Champions League.

"He joked with Klopp that maybe Manchester City and Liverpool should swap trophies this year - but there was some truth in that joke, I think.

"He's won every trophy in England with Manchester City and he knows that winning the Champions League with them would take them to the next level as a club."

Guardiola's City will kick off the New Year with a clash against Everton at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.

Al Sadd boss Xavi was left feeling angry with his players after they suffered a heavy 6-2 defeat to ES Tunis at the Club World Cup on Tuesday.

The Qatar champions were dismantled by a hat-trick from forward Hamdou Elhouni, producing what their head coach described as a "very disappointing" performance at Doha's Khalifa International Stadium in the fifth-place play-off.

Al Sadd did play the majority of the contest with 10 men after defender Abdelkarim Hassan was deemed to have blocked a goal-bound shot with his hand, leading to a straight red card.

Yet Xavi did not hold back in his post-match assessment, telling a news conference: "I'm very sad, very disappointed and very angry because we played the first two matches really well.

"This is a premium for us and I can't understand the team today. This is not what we want. 

"We are Al Sadd and we're playing against African champions and our attitude during the first 20 minutes isn't acceptable."

Former Barcelona and Spain international Xavi, who took charge in May after four years as a player with the club, acknowledged an improvement from his players following the dismissal of Hassan.

"After we got the red card we played okay," he added. "We played with good attitude, intensity. 

"I cannot accept the first 30 minutes, it's impossible to accept. I'm very angry, we need to find the solution. It was a really bad result

"We have to come back of course. We're in a bad moment because we couldn't compete well, but our reality is to win the local competitions and start well in the Asian Champions League. 

"This competition was a gift. Now we have to come back."

Xavi is dreaming of the Club World Cup semi-finals after Al Sadd edged past Hienghene Sport in Doha on Wednesday.

Extra-time goals from Abdelkarim Hassan and Pedro Miguel saw Al Sadd to a 3-1 victory after Antoine Roine had earlier cancelled out Baghdad Bounedjah's opener.

Ahead of a clash against Monterrey on Saturday, Al Sadd head coach Xavi was pleased, although he lamented his side's wastefulness.

"We wasted a number of easy chances, we were not able to score. In extra time, we managed to score and were lucky that we did not go to penalties," he told a news conference, as per the club's website.

"I am happy to progress to the next round of the tournament."

The Barcelona great added: "We have dreams and goals in the upcoming game. We are 90 minutes away from the semi-final and we will strive to achieve our goal in the next game against Monterrey."

Xavi is expecting improvement from Al Sadd against the Mexican giants, with European champions Liverpool awaiting the winners.

"I know Monterrey, they have played very well after the change of coach. They are a quick side with many players in attack and are also good from set-pieces," he said.

"They are a very good side. If we play like we did today, things will be tough for us but if it’s our day, we can perform well."

Minnows Hienghene Sport produced an outstanding performance to force extra-time before going down 3-1 to Al Sadd in round one of the Club World Cup.

Al Sadd - coached by former Barcelona midfielder Xavi - had been expected to record a comfortable win at their home stadium against amateur opponents hailing from New Caledonia.

However, Hienghene threatened to pull off an incredible shock, and the winners of the OFC Champions League were only undone when goalkeeper Rocky Nyikeine picked up a backpass in the first period of extra-time and Abdelkarim Hassan thundered home from the resulting indirect free-kick, with Pedro Miguel subsequently adding a late third.

Al Sadd, who will now face Monterrey on Saturday, were more than worthy winners, having spurned a succession of clear-cut chances to seal victory in normal time, but Hienghene could be immensely proud of a display highlighted by Antoine Roine's 46th-minute strike, which was awarded after a lengthy VAR review.

Roine caught the eye in the first half, with a bicycle kick that drew a sharp save from Saad Al Sheeb, as Hienghene repeatedly threatened on the counter-attack.

Baghdad Bounedjah's cute volleyed finish from Hassan's left-wing cross put Al Sadd ahead after 26 minutes, and the Qatari side saw two further goals from Akram Afif and Hassan Al Haydos ruled out for offside following VAR reviews either side of Roine's stunning leveller.

The New Caledonian winger muscled Boualem Khoukhi off the ball and fired a superb finish into the bottom-right corner. Referee Mustapha Ghorbal initially awarded a foul against Roine, but the decision was reversed and Hienghene celebrated jubilantly.

Xavi's men piled on the pressure thereafter and the underdogs were grateful for a stunning fingertip save from Nyikeine and two goal-line blocks from Joseph Athale, the second a heroic effort that prompted a dramatic goalmouth scramble, as they clung on.

Afif and Jung Woo-young were guilty of abysmal misses as Al Sadd's pressure intensified, but they eventually found a way through when Nyikeine incorrectly picked up a backpass and Hassan took full advantage.

Hienghene were understandably tiring badly by this point and Bounedjah hit the bar before Miguel made it 3-1 with a powerful close-range finish.

Xavi has challenged Al Sadd to reach the Club World Cup semi-finals and set up a clash with Liverpool in Qatar.

The former Barcelona midfielder was a two-time winner of the tournament as a player in 2009 and 2011 but will be in charge of Al Sadd this time around.

His side play Hienghene Sport, a team from New Caledonia who won the OFC Champions League this year, in Wednesday's opening match.

Xavi, who turns 40 in January, became coach of Al Sadd after they won the Qatar Stars League earlier this year.

The winners of the first-round match will go on to face Mexican side Monterrey, who are the reigning CONCACAF Champions League title-holders, and then the prize would be a semi-final against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool.

"It's an honour to be here. It's one of the biggest tournaments in the world," Xavi said in a news conference.

"We are here to compete. We know the difficulty. We are here for success, to play good games, to show everybody our level because we have the best generation of Qatari players in history, in my opinion.

"They won together the Asian Cup in January of this year. We gave a good philosophy and we want to show everybody we can compete, but it will be tough, I have to be honest.

"I had the opportunity to play three times in this competition and I won it two times as a player. As a coach it's totally different. We'll try to do our best and I'm really excited as a coach to play this competition."

Asked about the possibility of a last-four clash with Liverpool, Xavi added: "It's a goal to be in the semi-final, but we have to respect all the teams and they will respect us a lot.

"Tomorrow we have a difficult game, a difficult club. We want to go step by step. It's part of the process. Football is the present and the present is tomorrow's game."

The tournament opener takes place at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, Al Sadd's home ground, and they face a team from a town of barely 2,500 residents who have radically over-achieved to earn their place at this event.

Xavi said of his team's first task: "I try to say to them that the pressure now is on me. Don't be afraid to play football, otherwise it's impossible to have success.

"When you have the ball you cannot feel pressure otherwise you cannot play well. With my experience, when I was playing with pressure it was impossible to do things. For sure they will show they are ready to compete against everybody."

 

Player to watch

Al Sadd - Gabi

Like Xavi, former Atletico Madrid man Gabi boasts years of LaLiga experience and his playmaking ability should make him stand out from the pack at the level of Wednesday's game.

Hienghene Sport - Bertrand Kai

Kai, who manages a boarding school as a day job, won the Golden Ball award at the 2019 OFC Champions League as the competition's outstanding player. Like Gabi, he is 36 but a force to be reckoned with.

Akram Afif has been named the AFC Player of the Year for 2019 after his starring role in Qatar's Asian Cup triumph.

Afif – who has played for Al Sadd, coached by Barcelona legend Xavi, on loan from Villarreal since 2018 – provided 10 assists in seven appearances as World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar claimed their maiden Asian Cup title.

The 23-year-old saw off competition from Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and Japan's Tomoaki Makino for the award, which was won by his Qatari team-mate Abdelkarim Hassan in 2018.

"Very happy to be selected as the Asian Player of the Year," Afif tweeted.

"This is a great honour for me. thanks to my team-mates and brothers the players of my club as well as the coaching staff and all the national team family, would like to tell them we are all 'players of the year'."

As well as his success in the Asian Cup, Afif also played a crucial role as Xavi's Al Sadd won the Qatar Stars League title in 2018-19, scoring 26 goals in 22 appearances.

Real Madrid could complete a deal for Christian Eriksen in the new year, while Barcelona have big plans of their own.

Eriksen was heavily linked with a move away from Tottenham in the close season, only for no switch to materialise as he entered the final year of his contract.

But that could change at the start of 2020, while Barca are also looking to the Premier League for a big signing.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID WANT ERIKSEN SIGNED IN JANUARY

Real Madrid are hoping Eriksen will sign a pre-contract in January, according to the Mirror.

The LaLiga giants want the Denmark international signed before joining for free when his contract expires at the end of the season.

The report says Madrid are also targeting Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino with Zinedine Zidane under some pressure at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reports Tottenham are worried Eriksen will reject attempts to sell him in January.

 

ROUND-UP

- With Ernesto Valverde under pressure, Barcelona great Xavi – the Al Sadd boss – sees Manchester City star Raheem Sterling as a perfect signing if he takes over as coach, according to the Daily Mail. Real Madrid are also reportedly interested in the England attacker.

- If Pochettino leaves Tottenham, it appears there are several managers interested in moving to Spurs. The Sun reports former Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri is waiting in the wings if Pochettino leaves, while the Daily Mail says former Spurs forward Jurgen Klinsmann also wants the job.

- Amid uncertainty over his future at Camp Nou, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic has ruled out moving to Qatar, according to Fox Sports. The Croatia international has previously been linked to Paris Saint-Germain.

- Barcelona are pressing for Spain not to take 16-year-old forward Ansu Fati to the upcoming Under-17 World Cup, according to AS. Fati has been a revelation for Barca this season, scoring two goals in six games.

- Linked with a move to MLS side Chicago Fire, Andres Guardado is set to stay at Real Betis. The Mexico international will sign a two-year contract with the LaLiga outfit, according to Estadio Deportivo, with his current deal ending at season's end.

- Claudio Ranieri is set for a return to coaching. The 67-year-old, who left Roma at the end of last season, could take over at struggling Ligue 1 club Saint-Etienne, according to Calciomercato.

Barcelona great Xavi believes Raheem Sterling is on course to emerge as the world's best player when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo leave centre stage.

Manchester City star Sterling has started the new season in scintillating fashion, scoring eight times for club and country.

His goal return and overall effectiveness has markedly improved with Pep Guardiola's guidance and the 24-year-old is now one of the first players chosen for the Premier League champions.

Sterling won Europe's Golden Boy award in 2014 - given to the continent's brightest young talent - and Xavi thinks the England international is on course to replace Messi and Ronaldo at the front of the queue for further honours.

Xavi told The Mirror: "Messi is the best ever for me, and even though they're both still playing at a very high level, there will come the day not so long away when somebody else must step into those shoes.

"You look at young players who can be crowned the future best in the world and you still think of Neymar, [Kylian] Mbappe, [Mohamed] Salah and of course Sterling. I look at the moment and Sterling is winning that race.

"He's always been a good player, a dangerous player, but under Pep he [has] become one of the best in the world.

"I know how Pep works - he would have worked closely with him since his arrival - where he needs to improve and what he needed to work on.

"We're now seeing the results of that. He's still young and can be the world's best."

Barca captain Messi, 32, and Juventus forward Ronaldo, 34, have dominated the game's top awards for the past decade, winning the Ballon d'Or five times apiece since 2008.

Sebastian Giovinco secured Al-Hilal's place in the AFC Champions League semi-finals as they set-up a contest with Xavi's Al Sadd.

Al-Hilal overcame fellow Saudi Pro League side and two-time Champions League winners Al-Ittihad 3-1 on Tuesday, though had to fight back from behind.

Ziyad Al Sahafi put the visitors ahead on the night and on aggregate in the 10th minute, but Andre Carrillo hauled Al-Hilal level on the stroke of half-time.

The turnaround was complete three minutes into the second half - Carrillo turning provider as he crossed in for Salem Al Dawsari to head home.

But with Al-Hilal goalkeeper Abillah Al-Mayoof having kept out Hamdan Al Shamrani's close-range header, Giovinco's composed finish relieved the pressure and wrapped up the win.

Al-Hilal will be joined in the last four by Urawa Red Diamonds, who overcame Shanghai SIPG on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate draw.

Oscar and Marko Arnautovic were among the starters for Shanghai, though it was full-back Wang Shenchao who gave them hope by cancelling out Shinzo Koroki's header.

But without influential forward Hulk - who scored both of Shanghai's goals in the 2-2 draw in the first leg - Vitor Pereira's side lacked the cutting edge to muster another opening.

Indeed, it was Urawa who could have clinched a winner, with Daiki Hashioka rattling the crossbar as they ensured their spot in the semi-finals, where they will face either Guangzhou Evergrande or defending champions Kashima Antlers.

Xavi was left frustrated after his first game as Al-Sadd coach ended with a 1-1 AFC Champions League draw against Al-Duhail, in which he lost a shoe when kicking out in anger.

Barcelona great Xavi signed up to be the Qatari club's coach in May and his managerial debut came in Tuesday's last 16 first-leg clash with domestic rivals Al-Duhail.

The 39-year-old's coaching career got off to something of a rocky start, with Xavi at one point losing a shoe when he kicked out in frustration after his side were denied a penalty in the closing stages.

Xavi was ushered back to the bench by the officials while still wearing just one shoe, and the former Spain midfielder acknowledged his disappointment at the result and the referee's failure to award the spot-kick.

"My only disappointment is that we didn't win. It's not a bad result as we scored an away goal, but we deserve more than that. What makes me happy is how the players performed on the pitch," Xavi told his club's official website.

"It feels really good to coach this team. Our players were the best and had a great desire to win. The AFC Champions League is a tough tournament.

"Mistakes are part of the game. I don't like to talk about refereeing. A penalty call in the last minute of the game is tough for the referee, but in my opinion, it was a penalty."

With the Qatar Stars League not due to start until August 21, Al-Sadd's next fixture is the return leg against Al-Duhail on Tuesday, before they face the same opponent in the Sheikh Jassim Cup.

 

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