In the space of about 24 hours over the weekend, the outlook for Real Madrid and Barcelona changed considerably even if the table didn't.

While their results weren't exactly polar opposites, clearly Madrid came into a new week – the week of a Clasico – with more of a spring in their step.

Los Blancos were held to a draw by local rivals Atletico Madrid. While failing to beat such infamously obdurate opponents – even at home – may not be the most embarrassing of results, it was a bit of a comedown from the Anfield demolition they inflicted on Liverpool and, more crucially, there was a certain assumption about the outcome of Barca's clash with Almeria on Sunday.

As it happened, Barca fell to a shock 1-0 loss. They went from an assumed 10-point lead at LaLiga's summit to being seven points clear of Madrid.

In the context of a seven-point lead, it does seem a little daft to be trying to frame Barca's situation as anything other than positive, but they're undoubtedly going through a testing period – arguably their trickiest such spell of the season.

 

Sunday's surprise defeat came just three days after Europa League elimination by Manchester United. Although their 4-3 aggregate defeat was close on the scoresheet, not even ardent Barca fans would suggest they were deserving of progression – Erik ten Hag's men were, over the two legs, the better team.

Of course, it's not possible to say at this point whether the past couple of weeks simply represent a minor blip for the Blaugrana, or if it's part of something broader.

But Thursday's Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Madrid is the start of a spell that includes three Clasicos in just over a month.

It's a period that will almost certainly define Madrid's season, and potentially Barca's.

In LaLiga this season Barca have been far more consistent – in terms of results – than Madrid. Since their mid-October meeting, a 3-1 win for Carlo Ancelotti's men, the defending champions have dropped points six times in the league; Barca have won 12 of 14 matches.

 

But Barca's form in Europe this season has understandably raised concerns. Two defeats to Bayern Munich, one to Inter, a fortunate draw and loss agains United – it does bring into question their ability to rise to the occasion in the biggest games, and against the teams who are willing to take the fight to them.

Of course, the most recent Clasico was something of an exception. In that mid-January contest, Barca quite comprehensively picked Madrid apart in the final of the Supercopa de Espana, winning 3-1 in Riyadh. They were even 3-0 up for 21 minutes until Karim Benzema's very late consolation.

That appeared to be a statement win, but the make-up of their team on Thursday will be rather different to seven weeks earlier.

Two of the three goalscorers – Pedri and Robert Lewandowski – will be absent. Also out is Ousmane Dembele, usually the provider of the kind of explosive pace and unpredictability that can stretch any team.

 

With key injuries, decreased morale, and back-to-back defeats for the first time since last April, Barca couldn't have picked many worse times to descend into difficulty. But then again, could there be a better time to beat Madrid?

Clearly, Almeria did Madrid a huge favour on Sunday, and given how erratic – at least in comparison to Xavi's side – Los Blancos have been in LaLiga, they need a few more boosts yet.

In fact, the aforementioned inconsistency that's blighted Madrid in the league since the October Clasico has meant they've been continuously hoping for the smaller clubs to be a banana skin for the leaders. Before Almeria, only Espanyol had obliged.

Now, Madrid have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands, potentially putting two trophies within their grasp.

It's all well and good Madrid waiting and hoping for other teams to give them a helping hand and derail Barca while they stumble every few weeks, but they're the side best equipped to aid their own ambitions.

 

Barca haven't lost three in a row across all competitions since April 2016 – inflicting a seven-year low on their bitter rivals would be an emphatic reminder that Madrid are still there, fighting on both fronts in the Copa and LaLiga.

Three editions of Spanish football's biggest game look set to be decisive in one way or another.

For Madrid, these matches will likely dictate whether 2022-23 is a success or not.

Rafael Leao's name has long been in the rumour file given his contract status with Milan.

The forward is contracted with the Serie A side until July 2024 but has stalled on an extension, with no agreement on a salary increase.

There was speculation in January that a renewal was close but nothing materialised.

 

TOP STORY – MILAN'S LEAO BOOST

Rafael Leao would prefer to stay with Milan rather than move elsewhere, amid interest from a host of top clubs, claims Fabrizio Romano.

Manchester City, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have all been linked with the 23-year-old Portugal international.

But it is claimed Milan could renew Leao's deal before the next transfer window, effectively warding off their interest.

 

ROUND-UP

– Erik ten Hag wants to add at least two major signings at Manchester United in the off-season, with Ajax's Mohammed Kudus and Napoli's Victor Osimhen on their list, claims the Manchester Evening News.

Manchester City are weighing up a move for Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic, according to The Telegraph. The Croatian's contract expires in mid-2024. Football Insider reports City are also interested in Chelsea's full-back Ben Chilwell.

Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig both have an interest in signing Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita, who is out of contract at the end of this season, claims Bild.

Atletico Madrid have reached an agreement for Leicester City defender Caglar Soyuncu to join as a free agent in the off-season, reports 90min.

– El Nacional claims Dusan Vlahovic has also spoken to Real Madrid about a potential move to Spain from Juventus.

Juventus are also keen on signing out-of-favour Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, according to Fichajes.

David Alaba has offered an explanation for his vote at the FIFA Best awards after he listed Lionel Messi ahead of his Real Madrid team-mate Karim Benzema.

Alaba was subjected to online abuse, including racist remarks, after his choice was made public with Madrid fans starting a hashtag of #AlabaOut after he voted for Messi first, Benzema second and Kylian Mbappe third.

The Austria captain took to Twitter to explain that the vote was not his alone, but that of his entire national team.

"Regarding FIFA The Best Award: The Austrian national team vote for this award as a team, not me alone," he wrote. "Everyone in the team council is able to vote and that's how it's decided.

"Everyone knows, especially Karim, how much I admire him and his performances and I have often said that for me he is the best striker in the world, and that is still the case. Without doubt."

Messi claimed the men's prize at an awards ceremony in Paris on Monday after leading Argentina to glory at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Chelsea have continued to struggle in recent weeks despite their busy transfer activity during the January window.

The Blues have failed to score in their past three games, all defeats, and won only once in their past 11 games in all competitions.

Chelsea have only scored four goals in those 11 games this calendar year, with the situation putting pressure on new manager Graham Potter.

TOP STORY – CHELSEA TO TURN TO TAMMY

Chelsea could turn to former striker Tammy Abraham from Roma in the off-season, according to Football Insider.

There is a £70.5million (€80m) clause in Abraham's Roma contract that would allow the Blues to bring him back to Stamford Bridge which they intend to trigger, according to the report.

Chelsea have struggled for goals lately and view Abraham as a cheaper alternative to Napoli's Victor Osimhen.

 

ROUND-UP

– L'Equipe reports Kylian Mbappe will still leave Paris Saint-Germain in the near future even if he extends his contract. Mbappe's deal expires next year, but there is talk that PSG are looking to seal an extension for financial purposes.

Arsenal have submitted a £35m (€40m) bid to sign Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio, claims Calciomercato. Fichajes says the Gunners are also interested in West Ham's Lucas Paqueta as another midfield option.

Real Madrid will rival Barcelona and Chelsea in the pursuit to sign Inter midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, reports Corriere dello Sport.

Barcelona are interested in signing Julian Alvarez from Manchester City on loan, claims Mundo Deportivo, while the English champions have offered him a one-year contract extension until 2028 on improved terms, according to Fabrizio Romano.

Liverpool's plans to overhaul their midfield next season mean they have Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, Fiorentina's Sofyan Amrabat and Brighton and Hove Albion's Moises Caicedo in their sights, per Fichajes.

– Football Insider reports Liverpool are also monitoring N'Golo Kante's situation at Chelsea with talks ongoing over a contract extension.

Lionel Messi, Lionel Scaloni and Emiliano Martinez made it a clean sweep for Argentina in Monday's glitzy ceremony for the Best FIFA Awards in Paris.

Paris Saint-Germain forward Messi was crowned the Best FIFA Men's Player, Scaloni took the the Best FIFA Men's Coach and Martinez the Best FIFA Men's Goalkeeper.

The award period spans between the start of the 2021-22 season through to the end of the 2022 World Cup, which saw Argentina end their 36-year wait to win the competition.

Martinez, who plies his club trade for Aston Villa, finished ahead of Thibaut Courtois and Yassine Bounou of Real Madrid and Sevilla respectively in the voting – although Courtois made the cut for the FIFPro Men's World 11.

Scaloni was next to pick up an award after seeing off competition from Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti, who won a LaLiga and Champions League double last season.

La Albiceleste have lost just one of their 23 games since the start of last season, with their solitary loss coming in their opening Qatar 2022 group game against Saudi Arabia.

Messi made it three from three for Argentina by claiming the top prize at the ceremony in the French capital, which started with a poignant tribute to Brazil great Pele.

Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Messi's PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe had also been in the running for the award.

Argentina's fans also claimed the FIFA Fan Award.

Their domination on the men's side was not quite matched by European champions England in the women's prizes.

While Argentina dominated the men's side of the voting, it was a clean sweep for England in the women's side of things.

Mary Earps was named the Best FIFA Women's Goalkeeper and Sarina Wiegman took the Best FIFA Women's Coach award for a third time.

But Beth Mead was pipped to the Best FIFA Women's Player accolade by Alexia Putellas, last year's winner.

Other winners included Luka Lochoshvili, then of Austrian side Wolfsberger, in the FIFA Fair Play Award category for potentially saving the life of opponent Georg Teigl during a game after the Austria Vienna player fell unconscious mid-match.

Polish amputee footballer Marcin Oleksy won the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal for his perfectly executed bicycle kick for Warta Poznan against Stal Rzeszow.

Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina forward Lionel Messi has won the Best FIFA Men's Player award for a second time.

Messi saw off competition from club-mate Kylian Mbappe and Real Madrid's Karim Benzema to collect the award at Monday's ceremony in Paris.

The award spans the period between the start of the 2021-22 season through to the end of the World Cup, which saw Messi end Argentina's 36-year wait to win the competition.

Former Barcelona superstar Messi claimed the Golden Ball award in Qatar – given to the best player of the tournament – after scoring seven goals and assisting three more.

Those 10 direct goal involvements were matched by Mbappe, who finished as top scorer, but that was not enough to see the France forward win his first Best FIFA award.

 

Messi made a slow start to life at PSG by his own personal high standards, scoring 11 goals and assisting 14 in 34 games in his maiden campaign at the Parc des Princes.

However, the 35-year-old – who has also won a record seven Ballons d'Or – matched those figures in his first 18 games this season ahead of the World Cup.

Messi, who previously won the Best FIFA award in 2019, joins Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski as two-time winners, having also finished as a runner-up three times.

Real Madrid goalkeeper Lucas Canizares has signed a new deal with the LaLiga giants.

Canizares is yet to play a senior game for Madrid, but he has been named among their substitutes 10 times this season and was part of their Club World Cup-winning squad.

The 20-year-old, who is the son of former Madrid and Spain keeper Santi Canizares, finds himself behind Thibaut Courtois and Andriy Lunin in the pecking order.

He was reportedly close to leaving the club in January in order to seek regular football, but he confirmed on his Instagram page on Monday that a new contract had been signed.

"I'm very happy to expand my link with Real Madrid," Canizares said. "Eager to return with work the trust deposited. Let's go!"

It was quite the performance on Sunday from Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi, who combined for all three goals as Paris Saint-Germain won 3-0 at Marseille in Ligue 1.

In the absence of the injured Neymar and with PSG trying to get back on track after a recent run of three consecutive defeats before a 4-3 win against Lille last week, the star duo took it upon themselves to rip apart Marseille.

As well as both achieving personal landmarks on Sunday – Mbappe scoring his 200th PSG goal and Messi scoring his 700th career goal – they also improved their already impressive record as a pair in the league this season.

The two standout players from December's exciting World Cup final between France and Argentina have proven there is no ill will from Qatar as they continue to lay chances on a plate for the other.

Mbappe and Messi have combined for 10 goals in Ligue 1, three more than any other two players in Europe's top-five leagues this season.

In fact, the second-most productive combination in France's top-flight also involves Messi, who has combined with Neymar for six goals, while Lille pair Jonathan David and Remy Cabella have five.

 

It is perhaps no surprise with Napoli seemingly strolling to the Scudetto in Italy that Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen sit in second place in Europe with seven goals, but it may raise eyebrows to learn that they are joined on the same amount by another Serie A duo of Roma's Paulo Dybala and Tammy Abraham.

Lazio's Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are the third-most efficient in Italy after providing one another with a total of five goals.

In the Premier League, it did not take a fortune-teller to predict that Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland would work well together when Manchester City signed the Norwegian striker from Borussia Dortmund last year, and they lead the way in England with six combinations so far, ahead of Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, as well as Jack Harrison and Rodrigo Moreno at Leeds United (both five).

There are also three pairings in Europe's top 12 from the Bundesliga, though interestingly, none from Bayern Munich or Dortmund.

Borussia Monchengladbach's Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram and Bayer Leverkusen duo Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby have both combined for six goals, while surprise title contenders Union Berlin have been boosted by Jordan Siebatcheu and Sheraldo Becker producing five goals for one another.

Spain's LaLiga has not been quite as filled with potent partnerships, with three pairings tied on four goals each.

They include Ousmane Dembele and Robert Lewandowski of Barcelona, who have shone together at Camp Nou since the latter arrived from Bayern, while Atletico Madrid's Alvaro Morata and Antoine Griezmann have also managed four, as have Brais Mendez and Mikel Merino of Real Sociedad.

None can compare to the efficacy of Mbappe and Messi though, and while two of the world's best players continue to link up at the Parc des Princes, expect more and more magic moments from them.

Robert Lewandowski is set to miss Barcelona's Copa de Rey semi-final first leg at Real Madrid on Thursday due to a hamstring injury.

Barca on Monday revealed Lewandowski has sustained a strain of his left hamstring.

The league leaders stated that the prolific striker "is out and his recovery will determine his availability" three days before another Clasico showdown at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Lewandowski's injury is another blow for Xavi on the back of a shock 1-0 defeat at Almeria on Sunday.

That was only a second LaLiga defeat of the season for the Catalan giants, who are seven points clear of Madrid at the summit.

Barca also suffered the blow of being knocked out of the Europa League by Manchester United last week, losing the second leg at Old Trafford 2-1 after Lewandowski had opened the scoring with his 25th goal of the season.

Xavi's side face Los Blancos at Camp Nou in LaLiga on March 19 following clashes with Valencia and Athletic Bilbao. The second leg of their Copa semi-final takes place on April 5.

Speculation about Mohamed Salah's future at Liverpool has re-ignited amid the Reds underwhelming campaign.

Liverpool appear destined for a last-16 Champions League exit after losing the first leg 5-2 at home to Real Madrid, while they are down in seventh in the Premier League.

The Reds are nine points outside the top-four league spots to earn Champions League qualification for next term.

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL WILLING TO OFFLOAD SALAH

Mohamed Salah is willing to leave Liverpool if they fail to qualify for next season's Champions League while the Reds are open to selling him, claims Fichajes.

Football Insider claims Paris Saint-Germain are keen on the Egyptian, who is contracted with Liverpool until mid-2025, and will bid €80 million (£70.6m) for his services.

Liverpool may be open to offers for Salah given their wealth of forward options as Jurgen Klopp looks to revamp his squad, with their intended pursuit of Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, who is expected to cost more than €110m (£97m).

 

ROUND-UP

– Inter forward Lautaro Martinez is garnering interest from Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, reports TEAMtalk. The 25-year-old Argentinian is contracted until mid-2026.

– Like Arsenal, Manchester United are weighing up a move for Celta Vigo midfielder Gabri Veiga, claims AS. The 20-year-old is believed to be priced around £26m (€30m).

– Fabrizio Romano reports Liverpool's Naby Keita may join Barcelona as a free agent at the end of this season, although he clarified "nothing is serious yet".

– Napoli will rival Liverpool in the race to sign Empoli's 19-year-old attacking midfielder Tommaso Baldanzi, claims Calciomercato.

– RMC Sport reports Paris Saint-Germain will not axe head coach Christophe Galtier before the end of the season, following reports of a move for Thomas Tuchel to replace him.

– Liverpool are considering a swap deal for Milan's Rafael Leao involving Luis Diaz, while PSG are in the race for the Portuguese's signature, according to Calciomercato.

Barcelona coach Xavi acknowledged he was "very p***ed off" by his side's loss to Almeria, as the Blaugrana suffered just a second LaLiga defeat of the season.

A superb first-half finish from El Bilal Toure secured the spoils for the hosts at Power Horse Stadium, lifting them out of the relegation zone as they dealt a blow to the league leaders.

Despite the result, Barca remain clear at the summit, seven points ahead of rivals Real Madrid, who they meet in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final tie on Thursday.

But that cushion did little to stem Xavi's ire afterwards, with the Spaniard sparring little excuse for his team's lacklustre performance.

"[I am] very p***ed off," he said. "We played the worst game of our season, especially in the first half. We lacked intensity and rhythm.

"We didn't show passion to win the game. In the second half, we were better, but it was a difficult game. We are still leaders by seven points.

"We made mistakes and we apologise to the fans. It will be difficult to win LaLiga, but we have to change the chip now [for the Copa del Rey]]."

Xavi played down suggestions his side showed a lack of passion in their efforts however, suggesting it came down more to a tired team suffering from a recent heavy schedule.

"We noticed a bit of fatigue," he added. "That's why we have made rotations. That's why we have changed players. We've played a lot of games.

"But a golden opportunity has been lost. We could have had 10 points [as a lead]. It has been a bad day."

Barcelona suffered a shock loss to lowly Almeria as the leaders' 13-game unbeaten run in LaLiga came to a grinding halt in a 1-0 reverse.

El Bilal Toure's first-half strike proved the difference as the Mali international latched onto a Luis Suarez ball looped into his path and cannoned a finish in off the crossbar at Power Horse Stadium on Sunday.

On the back of their Europa League exit to Manchester United on Thursday, Xavi's side suffered a second successive defeat for the first time this season, missing the chance to go 10 points clear at the summit.

But opposite number Rubi will cherish a famous win for his side, as their upset helped to hoist them out of the relegation zone at the other end of the table.

Determined to ensure there would be no hangover from their midweek European loss, Barca looked to dominate possession from the first kick of the ball.

Yet they could not make their early chances stick and paid the price when Suarez brought down a long ball on the right flank, before lobbing a cross inside for Toure to finish via the woodwork in the 24th minute.

The visitors laboured in pursuit of an equaliser for the rest of the half, and headed into the interval looking no closer to finding the answers.

With the need to muster a response pressing, Barca again sought to pile on the pressure after the break, restricting their hosts to defensive duties and a meagre share of the ball.

But, with Robert Lewandowski placing two headers off target in the final 15 minutes, they could not summon the magic moment to save them from a stunning defeat. 

Atletico Madrid chief executive Miguel Angel Gil has accused Real Madrid of pressurising officials and questioned the "integrity" of LaLiga after Angel Correa was sent off in Saturday's derby.

Correa was shown a straight red card midway through the second half of a 1-1 draw between the Madrid rivals at the Santiago Bernabeu, following a seemingly innocuous push on Antonio Rudiger.

Atletico have now had a man sent off in all three meetings with Madrid this season, with Correa following in the footsteps of Mario Hermoso and Stefan Savic. 

While Diego Simeone's men made light of their numerical disadvantage to deal a blow to Madrid's title hopes, the decision left a sour taste for Gil Marin.

"I said it a few weeks ago and I stand by it, word for word," he said in a statement on the club's website. "Yesterday was more of the same, it's regrettable! 

"We always suffer this kind of behaviour against this team because of the permanent pressure on the refereeing staff.

"After the last derby I decided to share my opinion publicly and, just for that, I received a lot of criticism and disqualifications from different groups.

"However, from many groups I received private expressions of support. I especially liked those that came from media professionals and former referees, because they understood better than anyone else my denunciation of a system that is not fair and that tries to influence the decisions of people who should be impartial judges.

"We cannot normalise what is abnormal. I refuse to get used to these situations, even though they have unfortunately become a habit over the years. We are fed up with it.

"The integrity of the competition cannot be in doubt."

Diego Simeone believes Real Madrid receive preferential treatment from referees after Atletico Madrid's Angel Correa was red carded during Saturday's derby draw.

The match finished 1-1 with 18-year-old Alvaro Rodriguez coming off the bench to score a late equaliser after Jose Gimenez had headed Atleti in front.

Despite Simeone's men putting yet another dent in their rivals' LaLiga title hopes, he was aggrieved not to pick up all three points and highlighted what he perceives as refereeing bias towards Madrid after Correa was sent off for an elbow to the chest of Antonio Rudiger.

"A contact is not a blow," Simeone told DAZN. "Football is a physical game.

"If I'm not mistaken, Rudiger measures 1.94 metres and if it was apparently such a brutal blow, it would have left him sitting down, but he immediately gets up.

"It may be a yellow [card] but sending a player off for that, there would be no players left on the field.

"It's the same story. It is normal, and it has become normal [referees favouring Madrid] and that's not right and it would be nice if we could all compete in the same way."

Correa's dismissal was Atleti's third in three meetings with Madrid this season after Stefan Savic's red card during a 3-1 extra-time loss in the Copa del Rey quarter-final and Mario Hermoso's sending off in September's league defeat.

Simeone is frustrated by favouritism towards Carlo Ancelotti's men, especially at the Santiago Bernabeu, saying: "In the Copa del Rey, they could have sent off Dani Ceballos for a foul that was a red.

"Today, Angel's foul they saw it that way. You have all seen it, there are things that are very clear.

"[VAR] can go either way, sometimes in your favour, sometimes against you.

"However, every time we come here [to the Bernabeu], it goes against us."

Despite ending a run of four straight games away from home against Madrid without scoring, Simeone felt his team should have picked up all three points, declaring: "We are left with the feeling that we could have won the game.

"We knew that Madrid at the end of games are very dangerous.

"We overcame Reinildo's injury, also recovered from Correa's sending off and took the lead. We could have defended better so as not to concede the equaliser, but we must continue on this positive path."

Marcus Thuram will leave Borussia Moenchengladbach at the end of this season when his contract expires.

As a result, the 25-year-old French forward is garnering plenty of interest from top European clubs.

Thuram has scored 14 goals in all competitions this season for Gladbach, having been part of France's 2022 World Cup squad.

 

TOP STORY – THURAM OFFERED TO BARCELONA

Marcus Thuram's agent has offered the French forward to Barcelona as an off-season signing, according to Mundo Deportivo.

Thuram has interest from Chelsea, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid and Inter.

Barcelona's economic challenges mean they have prioritised signing players on free transfers in recent times with Thuram offering that plus flexibility in attack.

 

ROUND-UP

– Fichajes claims Cristiano Ronaldo wants Sergio Ramos to join him at Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, with the defender's contract with PSG to expire at the end of this season. Ramos will leave it late to make a decision, holding out hope for a PSG extension.

Liverpool will battle Bayern Munich in the off-season for the signature of Juventus striker Dusan Vlahovic, reports Calciomercatoweb.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea are all interested in Inter's Marcelo Brozovic, with the Serie A club open to selling him, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Manchester United are weighing up a move for Bayer Leverkusen right-back Jeremie Frimpong, reports Football Insider. Fabrizio Romano claims numerous top clubs are interested in the Dutch defender.

– La Gazzetta dello Sport claims Liverpool are tracking Inter's Nicolo Barella as they look to bolster their midfield options.

West Ham, Fulham, Crystal Palace and Brentford are all circling for Milan forward Olivier Giroud,  who is open to a return to England, claims The Sun.

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