Lionel Messi hailed the special achievement of captaining Barcelona to another trophy as president Joan Laporta backed the superstar forward to sign a new deal with the club.

The 33-year-old scored twice in Saturday's 4-0 Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic Bilbao after Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong had given Barca a two-goal lead.

With that double, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner made it a record nine goals in 10 appearances in the final of the competition to overtake Athletic great Telmo Zarra.

He has now scored the fourth most goals ever in the competition (56), meanwhile, behind Guillermo Gorostiza (64), Jose Samitier (69) and Zarra (81).

Messi's future remains a hot topic of debate with his contract due to expire at the end of the season, potentially making this seventh Copa triumph his last for the Catalan giants.

Barca were made to wait until the hour mark to find a way past opposition goalkeeper Unai Simon, but Messi is glad his side's patient approach to breaking down Athletic paid off.

"It's nice to lift a title. It's a very happy day for this group," Messi said. "It is very special to be the captain of this club. It is a very special cup for me to lift.

"We knew Athletic played this way, with a solid 4-4-2. We had patience with the ball and created spaces. We moved a lot in the first half and I think they fell in the second half.

"Not being able to celebrate it with our people, it's a shame. The situation is what we have to live in. The cups are always special and people enjoy them a lot."

Barca have enjoyed an upturn in form since the turn of the year and are two points off top spot in LaLiga, despite defeat to Real Madrid in last week's Clasico.

"It was difficult for us in the first half of the year. We lost a lot of silly points," Messi added. 

"Then we became strong, very good, and we got into the title fight. Last week, unfortunately, we couldn't get a good result from the Clasico."

Messi, who has now hit 30 or more goals for Barca in 13 successive seasons, has been touted as a possible target for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

However, recently elected club president Laporta remains confident that the Argentina international can be tempted to stay at Camp Nou beyond the end of this season.

"Leo is the best in the world, he is deeply rooted in the club," Laporta said. "I am convinced that he wants to stay and we will do everything in our power to make him stay.

"Today we have seen that he is supported by a great team."

The victory at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja marked the first piece of silverware won by Koeman since being appointed by Barcelona last August.

And like Laporta, Koeman is hopeful Barca's improved performances in 2021 will be enough to persuade Messi to put pen to paper on fresh terms.

"I hope it is not the last Messi's cup match with us, we want him to continue with us," Koeman said at his post-match news conference.

"You never know if it has been Leo's last final because it is he who must decide. As the president says, we will do our best to make him stay. 

"He has proven, once again, to be the best in the world. With enormous effectiveness, he has led the team."

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

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

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

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

A bemused Ronald Koeman has described the constant speculation over his future as Barcelona head coach as "a little bit strange". 

It has been a tumultuous debut season for the former Netherlands boss, who arrived at Camp Nou on a two-year contract in August. 

First up, he 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 put them into title contention. 

They did suffer a first defeat since early December against Real Madrid in El Clasico last weekend, but they are just two points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid with eight games remaining. 

Up next is Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday and, speaking at a pre-match media conference, a clearly exasperated Koeman did not hold back when asked if failure to secure the trophy would result in his dismissal. 

"If you would like to hear my opinion about this, it's a little bit strange that I need to answer questions like this," he told reporters. 

"We had a run of 19 games without losing, we lose one match and I need to talk about my future. 

"Maybe I need to accept this, but I don't agree. You have to do your job and talk to people in the club. I have one more year of my contract. 

"I know before the game what will happen if we win and if we don't win. I have to accept it. I took this job as a coach and I know there's a big pressure and I can handle that. Sometimes it's a little bit strange."

Despite speculation that Koeman may not start next season as Barca boss, the club's new president Joan Laporta did offer public support to Koeman over his future after his victory in last month's election. 

Asked if he needs Laporta's backing again following the defeat to Madrid, Koeman said: "I don't need this. We have spoken and he has shown me his confidence.

"If someone writes that the coach's future is at risk, the president doesn't have to respond to that by showing confidence.

"I'm the first to know what Laporta thinks. At this club you need to win trophies, and despite the changes and the economic situation at the club, we're here at a final and we want to win it; speculation isn't important."

This will be the fourth meeting between the sides this season, with Barca winning both LaLiga clashes and Athletic securing a dramatic 3-2 triumph in the Supercopa de Espana in January. 

Ronald Koeman insisted Barcelona remain upbeat and optimistic in their pursuit of the LaLiga title, despite suffering Clasico pain at the hands of Real Madrid.

Barca left the Spanish capital emptyhanded after Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos guided defending champions Madrid to a 2-1 win on Saturday.

Oscar Mingueza set up a dramatic final half-hour with his second goal of the season for Barca, while Madrid midfielder Casemiro was sent off in the 90th minute.

But Madrid held on at a sodden Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium to seal a third consecutive win against Barca in all competitions for the first time since 1978 as they provisionally moved top of the table, with Atletico Madrid in action on Sunday.

Barca are third and a point off the pace, though they could fall four points adrift if Atletico beat Real Betis.

"Of course we're still upbeat and optimistic because we've produced a serious performance," Barca head coach Koeman told reporters. "We are fighting.

"We lost a match against a team who are fighting to win the league but there are nine matches and all the matches are important for the three best teams.

"It's difficult for all three of us. We will come back, we will fight until the last match."

Barca attempted 12 shots in total in the second half, three of those on target, and nearly snatched a point when Ilaix Moriba struck the crossbar in the 94th minute.

But, Koeman became the first Barcelona coach to lose his first two LaLiga games against Madrid since Joaquim Rife in 1980 (also the first two).

Koeman could not hide his frustration post-match, having felt his side should have had a penalty when substitute Martin Braithwaite went down in the box under pressure from Ferland Mendy.

The former Netherlands boss said: "I'm not the only person who's upset about the decision, or lack of decision.

"The players feel disappointed because of this decision by the referee to not give the penalty and there's players who have been playing for years for Barcelona, so I know. But once again not all decisions were right.

"You should ask the players but I would like to include myself. We know that we've played a good match football wise, the first part, the first half, ok, we were not up to our standards. Real Madrid defended very well in the first half.

"There's no [league] match next week and the title [Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao] is at stake. We have a week to prepare for a difficult match so we'll carry on and we are strong."

Lionel Messi, meanwhile, failed to score in seven consecutive Clasicos in all competitions for the first time in his career.

Ronald Koeman insisted Barcelona were denied a "clear penalty" in their 2-1 loss to Real Madrid as he hit out at the officiating in Saturday's dramatic El Clasico.

Barca fell to a third consecutive defeat to bitter rivals Madrid in all competitions for the first time since 1978 as they missed out on the chance to move top of LaLiga.

Oscar Mingueza set up a thrilling final half-hour at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano when prodding in to halve the deficit following first-half strikes from Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos. 

The visitors attempted 12 shots in total in the second half, three of those on target, and nearly snatched a point when Ilaix Moriba struck the crossbar in the 94th minute.

However, Koeman felt his side should have had a penalty when fellow substitute Martin Braithwaite went down in the box under pressure from Ferland Mendy.

And the Dutchman also questioned why more time was not added on at the end as a portion of the four allotted minutes was taken up by the officials resolving a technical issue.
 
"If you're a Barca fan or a Barca player, you're very unhappy with the result because I think there were two clear decisions that the referee didn't make that would have changed the game," he told LaLiga TV.

"I think we weren't good at all in the first 45. We weren't good in attack and we weren't good in defence.

"In the second half we improved but I only ask for a bit better when making key decisions because they are decisions that could have cost us the game and eventually they did.

"I think the added time as well was four minutes and it should have been added on. 

"He only added two minutes because of the issue with his microphone and there were quite a few more stoppages, also with the possible penalty towards the end. Once again, we have to accept it and shut up."

Defeat for Barca was their first in 20 league games since early December and saw them drop to third in LaLiga, a point behind Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, the latter of whom play their game in hand against Real Betis on Sunday.

When asked by reporter Ricardo Sierra if the two decisions that went against his side were defining moments, Koeman said: "Yes, of course. 

"The issue with the referee's microphone is a different issue completely. Obviously there were many things on the pitch that affected the result overall

"But I do think we should have gotten a clear penalty towards the end and I don't know why it wasn't reviewed by VAR.

"The linesman is there, he should assist with the decision. Everyone probably thinks it's a penalty. Do you think it's a penalty?"

Sierra failed to respond to Koeman's question, prompting the Barca boss to cut short the interview.

With this defeat, Koeman is the first Barcelona coach to lose his first two LaLiga games against Madrid since Joaquim Rife in 1980 (also the first two).

At half-time in Saturday's Clasico, Barcelona had out-passed Real Madrid by 390 to 172 and enjoyed 69 per cent of the possession. A fat lot of good it did them.

Madrid were 2-0 up having had more shots on goal, with eight to Barca's six and more on target (3-1). Federico Valverde had also hit the post as things threatened to get truly ugly for the Blaugrana.

Ronald Koeman has seen a remarkable turnaround since the new year, with Barca transformed from also-rans to many people's title favourites heading into this 2-1 defeat to their bitter rivals.

But against elite opponents, as in painful reverses earlier this season at the hands of Madrid, Atletico, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, they again came up short. For that, their coach must take his share of the blame.

During a prior run of 13 wins and one draw in LaLiga in 2021, Koeman frequently deployed a 3-4-2-1 formation and the result was some swashbuckling performances, most notably a 6-1 routing of Real Sociedad before last month's international break.

This week's last-gasp 1-0 victory against Real Valladolid was far more laboured and Koeman blinked. Antoine Griezmann, having formed a free-flowing forward trident with Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, was consigned to the bench at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Dembele was the match-winning hero against Valladolid but here cut an isolated figure as a lone striker, with Messi dropping deeper and deeper into midfield, trying to make something – anything – happen.

For all their numbers in the middle, Barcelona could not turn their possession into clear chances, nor could their apparent control prevent them from being eviscerated time and again on the break.

Karim Benzema's backheel finish for the opener was of the highest class, but Barca looked clueless as the white shirts rushed towards them.

Perhaps mindful of his poor record in big games this season, Koeman abandoned his successful formula for an approach that left Barca painfully between two stools.

 

Messi audaciously shot directly from a corner just before half-time, outfoxing Thibaut Courtois with vicious dip to hit the post. It was the latest of countless demonstrations of his genius in this fixture, but it was also a shocking indictment of Barca's overall play that it felt like a legitimate ploy.

The enduring and repeated image of the first period was Oscar Mingueza sprinting back towards his own goal wearing an anguished look as the effervescent Vinicius Junior showed him a clean pair of heels. Madrid's Brazilian forward enjoyed a career-best outing against Liverpool this week and was in no mood for the fun to stop.

Mingueza tired of that torment and took himself off to the Madrid box in the 60th minute to shin one in after Griezmann – on at half-time – dummied a cross from Jordi Alba, the full-back who was all at sea on the first goal before failing to head Toni Kroos' deflected free-kick off the line

Having made defenders look silly earlier on, it was Vinicius' turn to revert to slapstick as he broke clear with a chance to seal the points, only to botch a pass to Benzema where the idea was bad and the execution was worse.

To add to a mounting sense of chaos in torrential rain, Zinedine Zidane started taking off all his best players with an eye on Anfield.

The concluding moments were an encapsulation of this undulating LaLiga title race – hard to predict, full of errors and utterly captivating. Martin Braithwaite had a soft penalty appeal rejected amid great fury, Casemiro clumped into Mingueza and his perpetual mayhem to earn a second yellow card.

Top since November, Atletico Madrid will go back above their neighbours at the summit if they beat Eibar on Sunday. All three heavyweights will still fancy their chances, including Barca on account of their form leading into this weekend.

That is why this felt like such a missed opportunity for Koeman. His team have been the best in the country since January but he decided not to be bold when the stakes were highest.

For all the bridges built with a distant fanbase, turbulent boardroom and a star player whose future remains in the balance, this was a damaging backwards step.

And what of Messi? As things stand, his last act in this eternal rivalry will be delivering a free-kick for Illaix Moriba to hit the crossbar before a roving Marc-Andre ter Stegen hacked away at the rebound and booted the ball up Trincao's backside.

Perhaps he'll hang around after all.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane says he hopes Lionel Messi stays with Barcelona amid speculation about his playing future beyond this season.

Messi has been linked with a move away from Barcelona, including a reunion with former mentor Pep Guardiola at Manchester City this off-season.

The 33-year-old Argentinian has spent his entire professional career with Barcelona, whom he joined as a junior in 2000.

"Hopefully he stays at Barcelona," Zidane said, speaking ahead of Saturday's Clasico which may be Messi's last.

"He's good there and it's also good for the Spanish league."

Another player who has been linked with an off-season move is Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, who is coming off contract.

Ramos will miss Saturday's match with Barcelona due to a muscle injury.

"Hopefully it won't be his last Clasico," Zidane added. "He won't play tomorrow, it is a shame. But, I hope he stays here."

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman reiterated that sentiment, saying he hopes Ramos remains with Madrid beyond this season.

"The best for our league is to keep the best players until their last minute of professional football, like Leo Messi," Koeman said.

"You cannot compare with Sergio Ramos because one is a defender and the other is a striker. But both players have been very important for their clubs.

"Hopefully, Sergio Ramos will stay at Real Madrid and Leo will stay with us."

Ronald Koeman needs his whole Barcelona squad playing at their top level alongside Lionel Messi in Saturday's crucial Clasico, while he welcomed the return of Gerard Pique to his squad.

A patchy run of form from Atletico Madrid, in which the leaders in LaLiga have won only four of their past 10 top-flight matches, means Barca are only a point off top spot with Madrid just three back.

Saturday's contest, at Madrid's Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, could now have a huge bearing on the outcome of the title race in Spain this season.

Messi is the top scorer in El Clasico for all competitions (26) and in LaLiga (18) but has not scored in his previous six encounters against Madrid, matching his longest run without a goal in the fixture.

"Hopefully Messi will be decisive for us tomorrow," Koeman told a pre-match news conference.

"We need the best Messi, but above all we need the best Barca. And obviously we need Leo to have a good game, a good attack."

Barca's squad for the trip to Madrid has been boosted by the return of veteran centre-back Pique, who has been sidelined for just over a month since spraining his knee in the 3-0 win over Sevilla that secured a comeback 3-2 aggregate win in their Copa del Rey semi-final.

The versatile Sergi Roberto is also included in the squad having been out since February with a thigh issue.

"They are two important players due to their quality and personality," Koeman added.

"They lack rhythm but they are physically well, very excited to help the team, and it is important to have almost all the players available.

"For me, every player has to be in good physical and mental condition, so they all have a chance to play. 

"Every player has to prove this, and my role will be to pick the 11 best players to start the match."

Barca have been on a sensational run in LaLiga, going unbeaten in 19 matches and winning 13 out of the past 14.

The last time these sides met, Madrid ran out 3-1 winners at Camp Nou and Los Blancos are aiming for a third straight win in this match for the first time since 1978 and a first LaLiga double since the 2007-08 campaign.

But Koeman insists the outcome of this game will not be decisive in determining the end-of-season outcome at the top of LaLiga.

"The result in principle is not decisive because there are still many games to go and it will be difficult to win every game," Koeman said.

"But it is true that the team that wins will see their morale increased.

"El Clasico is a different game from the others, there is always a lot of emotion. Barca are having a great season, with many points achieved that allows us to fight for La Liga, but Madrid is still Madrid and we have to respect them and be at our best.

"We have improved a lot from the last Clasico. Although in the last Clasico, we played well, in my opinion. 

"We were better in the first half, but we lost in the second half with the intervention of the VAR. But we have improved in effectiveness."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koeman gets to know his squad

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frenkie finds his feet

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The heir apparent

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Messi's miraculous revival

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman admitted the upcoming El Clasico is bigger than normal with the LaLiga title on the line.

The Catalans moved within one point of leaders Atletico Madrid with Monday's 1-0 win over Real Valladolid, with third-placed Real Madrid a further two points back.

Atletico have dropped points in five of their past eight league fixtures, including Sunday's 1-0 loss to Sevilla, opening the door in the title race.

Barcelona make the trip to the capital to play Madrid on Saturday, while Atletico meet fifth-placed Real Betis.

"I think the Clasico is always important," Koeman said.

"Of course, it's maybe more important now because of the situation in the league, where we and Real Madrid are fighting against Atletico Madrid to win the title this season.

"Of course, it's an important game with two big, big teams in the world and of course it's an important result for us to get more possibilities to win the title."

Barcelona will enter the El Clasico in excellent league form, having won their past six LaLiga matches and going unbeaten across 19 matches.

Madrid are unbeaten in their past nine in the league and have won their past three LaLiga matches.

"It was really important to win tonight after the results in the league, to be more close to Atletico at one point now," Koeman added. "But also Madrid is close to them and will be really emotional until the end of the season.

"The team is working good. We're confident we can win the title but as we saw today, every game is difficult."

Barcelona showed they knew how to suffer in order to beat Real Valladolid, much to the satisfaction of boss Ronald Koeman.

Ousmane Dembele's 90th-minute strike gave the Blaugrana a 1-0 victory over their relegation-threatened opponents at Camp Nou, cutting the gap to leaders Atletico Madrid to a solitary point.

Real Madrid are up next in El Clasico this weekend, with a thrilling three-way title battle looking set to go to the wire.

If any team looks capable of pulling clear it is Barca, who have won 13 and drawn one in LaLiga in 2021, although they were far from their fluent best for long periods on Monday – something Koeman acknowledged.

"You have to know how to suffer in all the games, we knew how to do it. So yes, we deserved to win," he told reporters.

"It is true that we have not been at the level of the last games , but it is normal that sometimes games like this happen.

"I think we lacked a bit of freshness, it could be because of the international break. So yes, we are now able to win our games and be champions."

That Barca's title destiny is now in their hands owes much to France winger Dembele, who is enjoying his most consistent run of form and fitness since a big-money 2017 switch from Borussia Dortmund in 2017.

"Of course he is an important player, he has shown it today with his game, he has given us the points," Koeman said.

"His form this year is very good. Physically he has improved a lot and that has been the key to his consistency.

"I would like him to stay with us."

After the match, Barcelona announced Philippe Coutinho has undergone a successful meniscus procedure.

The playmaker has not featured in 2021 due to his knee injury.

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.

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