‘I Can’t Imagine Barcelona Without Messi’ – Dutchman Van Bronckhorst

Messi-hands-up
File photo: Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi waves before the 54th Joan Gamper Trophy friendly football match between Barcelona and Arsenal at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 4, 2019. Josep LAGO / AFP

 

Former Barcelona defender Giovanni van Bronckhorst told AFP that he hopes Lionel Messi will finish his career at the Camp Nou, as speculation swirls about the superstar’s future.

Messi is reportedly frustrated with Barcelona’s failure to build a top-notch squad, and tired of purported leaks from the Spanish club which paint him in a bad light.

Radio station Cadena Ser reported last week that the Argentine had broken off negotiations on extending his contract, which runs until 2021, and was thinking of leaving.

READ ALSO: Salah, Vardy, Aubameyang In Hot Race For Topscorer

Dutchman van Bronckhorst, 45, who is now coaching Guangzhou R&F in China, told AFP: “I would love to see him be part of Barcelona for his whole career.

“He’s one of the (few) players to stay his whole career at the same club.

“I admire him as a person and a player and hopefully he will stay there. That’s what I’d love to see.”

Van Bronckhorst left Arsenal for Barcelona in 2003 and won the Champions League in 2006, when a young Messi was already building a fearsome reputation.

“I’ve known him since he was 16 and now he’s 33,” said Van Bronckhorst.

“He’s developed into a great human being, he’s a family man and he’s more than capable of making his own decisions about where his future lies and whether he leaves.

File photo: Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team’s third goal during the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg football match between Barcelona and Liverpool at the Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona on May 1, 2019. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

 

“He will decide himself, but I can’t imagine a Barcelona without him.”

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu this week responded to the storm of speculation by saying that the club had “an obligation” to keep Messi, calling him “the best player in history”.

Messi, who said in February he did not believe Barcelona could win the Champions League on current form, has had regular disagreements with the club’s board.

He reacted publicly when sporting director Eric Abidal appeared to blame the players for the sacking of Ernesto Valverde in January.

He also led the fightback from the Barcelona players over a dispute with the board in March regarding pay cuts during the coronavirus pandemic.

AFP

Barcelona Could Condemn Espanyol To Relegation For The First Time Since 1994

File: Real Madrid’s Spanish defender Sergio Ramos reacts to Espanyol’s goal during the Spanish league football match between RCD Espanyol and Real Madrid CF at the RCDE Stadium in Cornella de Llobregat on February 27, 2018. Josep LAGO / AFP

 

Forever condemned to live in the shadow of Barcelona, Espanyol’s worst nightmare will come true on Wednesday if they are doomed to relegation from La Liga by their city neighbours.

It is a likely scenario. With four games remaining, Chinese-owned Espanyol are rock bottom, 11 points from safety. Even a win at the Camp Nou would therefore only delay the inevitable.

Los Periquitos (The Budgerigars) have not beaten Barcelona in La Liga since 2009, when Mauricio Pochettino was coach.

Wednesday therefore looks set to be the day of reckoning for a club who are one of the proudest names in Spanish football.

It is too much to bear for fans, with the Federation of Espanyol Supporters’ Clubs this week issuing a statement to express their dismay at what has happened under the current ownership.

China’s Rastar Group, which specialises in model cars, paid 60 million euros ($67.7m) for 54 per cent of the club’s shares in January 2016. They now own almost 100 per cent.

“We have been deeply angered by this shameful season, the worst in our history,” said the federation, which has called on president Chen Yansheng to hand over the reins to someone based locally.

“We want to express our indignation, our sadness, our disappointment, anger and feeling of helplessness at witnessing this pathetic relegation.”

Espanyol have spent the season chopping and changing coaches, with David Gallego, Pablo Machin and Abelardo Fernandez all being sacked before sporting director Francisco Rufete was put in charge last month. He has been unable to halt the slide.

“The whole team are fed up with the situation, but they can’t give up. We have to keep fighting until the end,” Rufete said after a 1-0 defeat by Leganes at the weekend. “We have to go to the Camp Nou and play for pride.”

– Sorry season –

Espanyol’s sorry season has been all the harder to take as it came off the back of a fine 2018-19 campaign under Rubi.

He led them to seventh place and Europa League qualification, only to depart for Real Betis, taking top scorer Borja Iglesias with him. Spanish international defender Mario Hermoso left for Atletico Madrid and those departures were not adequately replaced.

“I can’t understand how 80 million euros has been spent on transfers, and with the eighth-biggest budget in the league, the club has had the worst season in its history,” fumed former president Joan Collet.

They did make it to the Europa League knockout rounds, but lost to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

There has been little else to cheer. Signed amid much excitement last year, Chinese striker Wu Lei has contributed just four league goals this season, including a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Barcelona in January.

– Proud history –

That would not be enough this time for a club who have won the Copa del Rey four times and twice reached the UEFA Cup final, most recently in 2007 when Ernesto Valverde’s team lost on penalties to Sevilla in Glasgow.

Only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have spent more seasons in the top division than Espanyol — founded in 1900 and named not as a counter to the Catalanism of Barca, as is sometimes assumed, but as a reaction to a Barcelona team whose players were mostly foreigners.

Espanyol’s blue and white has graced the elite in 26 consecutive campaigns, playing in three different stadiums in that time.

They left their old home in Sarria in 1997 and spent a dozen years at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium before moving into a 40,000-seat home near the city’s airport in 2009.

That same year, club captain Dani Jarque died of a heart attack aged 26, and it was left to Pochettino to guide the team through the aftermath of that tragedy.

For all his efforts, Espanyol struggled to fill their new ground and continue to do so, despite trying to promote their own underdog identity.

Unlike their neighbours they have kept their distance from the Catalan independence movement, but Espanyol has a squad with a strong local core. That may not help them on Wednesday against Lionel Messi and co.

Barcelona Brush Aside Villareal To Keep Title Hopes Alive

barcelona-villareal
Barcelona’s Argentine forward Lionel Messi (3rdR) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal that was later ruled offside during the Spanish League football match between Villarreal and Barcelona at the Madrigal stadium in Villarreal on July 5, 2020. JOSE JORDAN / AFP

 

Barcelona on Sunday brushed aside Villareal 1-4 in a Spanish La Liga match to keep their title hopes alive. 

Antoine Griezmann answered his critics in style on Sunday by scoring with a sensational chip as Barcelona.

After the humiliation of being brought on in the 90th minute against his former club Atletico Madrid, Griezmann was back in the starting line-up at La Ceramica and repaid the faith with a stunning goal, teed up by Lionel Messi.

Messi also laid on a curling Luis Suarez shot into the top corner after Gerard Moreno cancelled out a Pau Torres own-goal that had put Barca in front. Ansu Fati then added a fourth late on.

An impressive victory for Quique Setien’s side reduces the gap back to four points behind Real Madrid, who earlier ground out another 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao at San Mames, with a Sergio Ramos penalty proving the difference.

Madrid’s resilient performance, and their third 1-0 victory in a row, offered a stark contrast to a goal-fest from Barcelona that was certainly easier on the eye but instructive on the title race too.

An end-to-end contest, full of chances for both sides, showed Messi, Suarez and Griezmann at their free-flowing best yet the defence was opened up with ease by Villarreal, who might have scored more.

Madrid’s discipline and organisation has made them firm favourites with four games remaining.

Griezmann had experienced his lowest moment since joining Barcelona on Tuesday in the draw against Atletico but this was the perfect response.

He celebrated his goal by sharing a warm embrace with Messi.

Villarreal looked a difficult opponent after winning five games out of six since the restart, a run that has put in touching distance of the top four.

This defeat leaves them three points behind Sevilla, who play Eibar on Monday.

The first half was perhaps the most entertaining in La Liga since the restart, with four goals and chances for two or three more.

Barca were ahead within three minutes, Torres diverting Jordi Alba’s cross into his own net under pressure from Griezmann at the near post.

– Ramos on the spot –

But Villarreal were level 11 minutes later as a superb pass from Samuel Chukwueze sent Paco Alcacer scampering in down the right and he did brilliantly to switch to Santi Cazorla on the opposite side.

Cazorla’s drive was parried but only to Moreno, who finished.

Messi laid on two sumptuous assists before half-time but the finishes were even better.

After chesting the ball down in the centre circle, Messi touched and turned, leaving his marker for dead.

He drove through two Villarreal defenders before pushing the ball left to Suarez, who arrived from the angle on the edge of the box and curled first time into the far corner.

If that was power, Griezmann’s was finesse, Messi and Suarez combining before Messi dragged back to the Frenchman, who caressed a delightful chip over Sergio Asenjo and in.

Messi thought he had his goal in the second half but Arturo Vidal was offside.

Suarez was taken off, presumably rested, and Fati added a fourth off the bench. The teenager cut in from the left and pulled his shot back inside the near post.

After edging out Getafe on Thursday, through a Ramos spot-kick, Madrid repeated the trick at San Mames, their captain’s nerve from the spot combining with a gutsy display for a pivotal win.

Ramos was perhaps fortunate not to concede a penalty himself late on when, off the ball, he seemed to slip and tread on the foot of Raul Garcia, but Madrid escaped.

Instead, the defender’s 10th goal of the season, the best tally of his career, proved decisive.

“It’s a massive win,” said Ramos. “We knew today was going to be one of the biggest games that we have left. It’s always a difficult game away at Bilbao and we saw it like that. We’re happy with another crucial three points that put more pressure on Barcelona.”

Ramos Scores 22nd Consecutive Penalty As Madrid Beat Bilbao

ramos
Real Madrid’s Spanish defender Sergio Ramos celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish League football match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Madrid at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao on July 5, 2020. ANDER GILLENEA / AFP

 

Sergio Ramos scored his 22nd consecutive penalty on Sunday as Real Madrid held on for another 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao to inch closer to winning La Liga. 

Ramos’ fifth goal in seven games since the restart gives Madrid a seven-point lead over Barcelona, who play later on Sunday at in-form Villarreal.

Anything but a victory for Barca would probably leave them too much to do with four games remaining, especially as Madrid own the superior record head-to-head.

This was Madrid’s toughest fixture left and they might have been content even with a point against a robust, well-organised Bilbao side.

But after edging out Getafe on Thursday, through a Ramos spot-kick, Madrid repeated the trick at San Mames, their captain’s nerve from the spot combining with a gutsy display to grind out a pivotal win.

Ramos was perhaps fortunate not to concede a penalty himself when, off the ball, he seemed to slip and tread on the foot of Raul Garcia, but Madrid escaped.

Instead, the defender’s 10th goal of the season, the best tally of his career, gave Madrid their third 1-0 win in a row, as well as a fourth consecutive clean sheet.

“It’s a massive win,” said Ramos. “We knew today was going to be one of the biggest games that we have left. It’s always a difficult game away at Bilbao and we saw it like that. We’re happy with another crucial three points that put more pressure on Barcelona.”

Ramos said he is always confident on penalties.

“In those moments of doubt that’s when I feel most comfortable. I wanted to take the responsibility,” he said. “But if I wanted individual recognition I would play tennis.”

Bilbao’s Iker Munain said Madrid had again been lucky with decisions.

“We’re not going to win it thanks to the referees,” said Ramos. “People have to look at themselves and be critical of their own performances. Based on the points, it seems we’re doing well at the moment.”

Madrid were without key players, with Raphael Varane nursing a neck injury and Eden Hazard out with pain in his ankle.

Eder Militao replaced Varane while Marco Asensio made his first start in 14 months up front.

There were chances at both ends in the first half and Bilbao had the best of them. Williams twice went close but was denied by a block by Marcelo and then a superb tackle by Militao while Raul Garcia’s header was pushed out by Thibaut Courtois.

Karim Benzema would have had a tap-in had Dani Carvajal executed a cushioned pass across the box but his touch was too high.

Asensio’s free-kick had created the chance and he swung in two more brilliant crosses before half-time, only for Rodrygo and Benzema to miss with their heads.

The second half was tighter as both teams slowed in the heat and a more cautious contest seemed to suit Madrid, whose moment came in the 73rd minute.

Marcelo was rewarded for a lung-busting run into the box, where he reached the ball just ahead of Dani Garcia, who twisted his body into the left-back and bundled him over.

Referee Jose Gonzalez consulted VAR and awarded the penalty, which Ramos whipped into the bottom corner.

Bilbao looked tired and never really threatened an equaliser but could have been gifted one had Ramos been penalised for the clumsy collision with Raul Garcia. Ramos survived and Madrid held on.

 

 

Benzema Shines As Madrid Beat Espanyol To Tighten Grip On La Liga Title

Real Madrid's French forward Karim Benzema eyes on the ball prior to shooting and scoring his second goal during the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid CF and Valencia CF at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium in Valdebebas, on the outskirts of Madrid, on June 18, 2020. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP
Real Madrid’s French forward Karim Benzema eyes on the ball prior to shooting and scoring his second goal during the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid CF and Valencia CF at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium in Valdebebas, on the outskirts of Madrid, on June 18, 2020.
JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

 

Karim Benzema delivered another moment of magic on Sunday as Real Madrid took a two-point lead over Barcelona at the top of La Liga by beating bottom club Espanyol. 

Benzema’s volley against Valencia could be goal of the season and he might now have a claim to best assist too after his brilliant backheel teed up Casemiro to finish for a crucial 1-0 win.

Madrid’s advantage in the table, coming after Barca’s draw away at Celta Vigo on Saturday, is their biggest since February and puts them within sight of their second league title in eight years.

“It’s a very important win,” said Benzema. “I can’t say we don’t look at Barcelona, of course we do. But we’re focused on our own league. There are not many games left and every game now is a final.”

Zinedine Zidane said Eden Hazard took a knock to his ankle.

“He took a big hit but it’s just a knock I think,” said Zidane.

By the time his side play at home to Getafe on Thursday they might even have the chance to move further clear, if in-form Atletico Madrid avoid defeat on Tuesday at Camp Nou.

Barcelona certainly have the harder run-in, with a resurgent Villarreal side to follow Atletico and then local rivals Espanyol, who have shown they might yet finish strong after a determined performance under new coach Franciso Rufete.

Rufete, who was previously the club’s sporting director, is Espanyol’s fourth coach of the season after the sacking of Abelardo Fernandez on Saturday.

His task is now to make up a nine-point gap between his team in 20th and Celta in 17th.

They were undone by a piece of instinctive brilliance from Benzema, who has been the catalyst for Madrid sealing five wins out of five since La Liga restarted on June 11.

Sensational assists

Benzema’s backheel came on an afternoon of sensational assists after Villarreal’s Santi Cazorla earlier set up Gerard Moreno with an incredible, cushioned touch in their 2-0 win over Valencia.

“I have to give huge credit to Karim,” said Casemiro. “It was an incredible assist. We’re used to how good he is, I know the quality he possesses so I was expecting something. He heard me asking for it and he played it in a brilliant way.”

Madrid, though, were scruffy and ponderous at the RCDE Stadium, this perhaps their least impressive win over the last three weeks.

But solidity and steel ensured they came through unscathed and it was no surprise that defensive midfielder Casemiro, arguably the team’s best player this term, was named man of the match.

Espanyol were far from outplayed and might have been ahead if they had capitalised on a series of forays down Madrid’s left in the first half.

With Marcelo repeatedly caught up field, Wu Lei was able to sprint clear and his early pull-back was met by Sergi Darder at the back post, only for his shot to be blocked by Dani Carvajal.

Madrid were sloppy but created chances. Sergio Ramos headed over Casemiro’s smashed effort across goal.

A scrap in the penalty area ended with Diego Lopez palming over a half-volley from the quiet Eden Hazard.

Espanyol were hanging on for half-time and they were caught out by Benzema.

Ramos flicked on Marcelo’s crossfield pass and Benzema, moving away from goal, backheeled off the bounce through the legs of Bernardo Espinosa for the arriving Casemiro to finish.

Wu had another chance early in the second half but scuffed his shot and both teams seemed content to let the score lie until the latter stages, when Espanyol began to take more risks.

Their best chance came in the 87th minute when a free-kick evaded the entire Madrid defence but Leandro Cabrera was just short at the back post. Marcelo almost deflected into his own net for the last action before the whistle blew.

Earlier, Villarreal continued their surge towards Champions League qualification with a victory over Valencia, inspired by Cazorla.

The 35-year-old found himself under a 60-yard punt from his goalkeeper before cushioning the ball out of the air perfectly for Gerard Moreno to volley in.

Paco Alcacer also scored against his former club as Villarreal moved just three points behind fourth-placed Sevilla.

 

AFP

Barcelona Held By Celta Vigo To Give Madrid Advantage In Title Race

Celta Vigo's Spanish midfielder Jacobo Gonzalez (2ndR) challenges Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (L), Barcelona's Portuguese defender Nelson Semedo and Barcelona's Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal (R) during the Spanish League football match between Celta Vigo and Barcelona at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo on June 27, 2020. STR / AFP
Celta Vigo’s Spanish midfielder Jacobo Gonzalez (2ndR) challenges Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (L), Barcelona’s Portuguese defender Nelson Semedo and Barcelona’s Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal (R) during the Spanish League football match between Celta Vigo and Barcelona at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo on June 27, 2020. STR / AFP

 

Barcelona’s title hopes suffered a hammer blow on Saturday as they were held to a 2-2 draw by Celta Vigo, handing Real Madrid the chance to move two points clear at the top of La Liga.

Luis Suarez twice put Barca in front at Balaidos with his first goals since January but Iago Aspas bent in a late free-kick to earn Celta a draw, in what could prove a pivotal moment in the title race.

Barcelona edge a point ahead of Madrid but Zinedine Zidane’s side will hope to take a big step towards becoming champions by winning away at bottom club Espanyol on Sunday.

Madrid own the superior head-to-head against Barca and have won four out of four since La Liga restarted earlier this month. With a kinder run-in than the Catalans, who play Atletico Madrid next on Tuesday, the trophy appears to be Madrid’s to lose.

“The feeling is a negative one,” said Suarez afterwards. “If we want to stay in the title race and have it in our hands we have to win all our games. But we now have to rely on Madrid to drop points.”

Suarez played his best game since undergoing knee surgery in January, his first goal coming from a surprise free-kick from Lionel Messi, who crossed when everyone expected him to shoot.

Yet Barcelona’s defensive frailties hurt them again and Celta should even have won it in injury-time, only for Nolito to miss a golden chance at the back post.

Celta climb to 16th, eight points clear of the bottom three.

Quique Setien answered calls to start 20-year-old Riqui Puig and 17-year-old Ansu Fati, and the duo impressed, injecting energy and speed into Barca’s attack.

Antoine Griezmann was left on the bench and when he came on, he was on the side of the wall that Aspas breached with his free-kick to find the bottom corner.

Messi was at the heart of everything going forward and it was his early corner that Gerard Pique headed against the crossbar.

With a free-kick on the edge of the area in the 20th minue and a 700th career goal in sight, Messi sized up the sprawl of Celta defenders in front of him.

But with everone expecting a shot, Messi clipped a cross towards the post, where Suarez headed in.

Messi even tried to score from a corner but Celta had chances too on the break. A poor clearance from Marc-Andre ter Stegen went unpunished by Fedor Smolov, who then overhit his pass when Aspas was clear. Brais Mendez slid through and hit the post.

The warnings went unheeded and when Arturo Vidal played a careless pass early in the second half, Celta capitalised.

Aspas sent Okay Yokuslu sprinting in behind and he squared for Smolov to tap in.

Celta look invigorated but Barca landed a sucker-punch. Denis Suarez lost possession under pressure from Fati, Messi played into Luis Suarez, who backed in, turned and drove into the far corner.

It looked like they had weathered the storm but Celta hit back again, Aspas curling around the side of the wall and into the corner with two minutes left.

They should even have won it in injury-time as Denis Suarez teed up Nolito at the back post but a scuffed finish let Ter Stegen save on the line.

 

AFP

Barcelona Grind Out Athletic Bilbao Win To Put Pressure Back On Madrid

Barcelona's players celebrate after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on June 23, 2020. Pau BARRENA / AFP
Barcelona’s players celebrate after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on June 23, 2020. Pau BARRENA / AFP

 

Barcelona limped to a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Tuesday that sends them back to the top of La Liga, for 24 hours at least, three points ahead of Real Madrid.

Only a goal from substitute Ivan Rakitic in the 71st minute prevented Barca from another stalemate after a draw at Sevilla on Friday had allowed Real to go top on head-to-head.

Madrid will return to the summit if they beat struggling Real Mallorca on Wednesday but Barcelona’s victory at least puts the pressure back on Zinedine Zidane’s side, whose upward momentum is yet to be reflected by the table.

 

AFP

La Liga: Betis Fire Coach Rubi, Appoint Former Skipper Trujillo

Real Betis’ Spanish midfielder Joaquin (L) fist bumps with Sevilla’s Argentinian midfielder Ever Banega (L) at the end of the Spanish League football match between Sevilla FC and Real Betis at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville on June 11, 2020. CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

 

Three games into the resumed Liga season, Real Betis announced on Sunday they had replaced coach Joan Francesc Ferrer, known as “Rubi”, with the club’s sports director Alexis Trujillo.

Betis have drawn once and lost twice in three games since the Spanish top flight resumed, and fell 1-0 at Bilbao on Saturday, leaving the club 14th in the 20-team table, eight points clear of the relegation places with eight matches to play.

The club said in a statement posted on their website early on Sunday that they had made the decision to fire Rubi late on Saturday evening.

The statement said Trujillo, a 54-year-old former midfielder who captained Betis and played more than 220 games for the club, had been appointed until the end of the season.

Trujillo also took over as coach for the last two games of the 2016-17 season, drawing both games.

The club thanked Rubi and his assistants.

The 50 year-old Catalan arrived at Betis from Espanyol at the start of the season on a three-year contract.

AFP

Barcelona Lose De Jong To Injury For ‘Several Weeks’

FILES) In this file photo taken on October 2, 2019 Barcelona’s Dutch midfielder Frenkie De Jong kicks the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group F football match between Barcelona and Inter Milan at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona.  Josep LAGO / AFP

 

Barcelona midfielder Frenkie De Jong has injured a calf muscle and could be out of action for several weeks, according to the club and media reports.

De Jong, 23, sat out Barca’s goalless draw with Sevilla on Friday and the club said in a statement on Sunday that “the clinical follow-up… has uncovered an injury in the soleus of his right leg.”

The club did not say how long De Jong would be out of action but media reports said it could be several weeks.

The Dutch international, who was signed after starring in Ajax’s charge to the Champions League semi-finals last season, has made 27 league appearances in a solid first campaign in Spain’s coronavirus-interrupted season.

AFP

Pique Pessimistic Over Barcelona Title Hopes After Sevilla Draw

Barcelona's Spanish defender Gerard Pique (C) argues with Sevilla's Spanish defender Sergio Reguilon (R) during the Spanish league football match between Sevilla FC and FC Barcelona at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville on June 19, 2020. CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP
Barcelona’s Spanish defender Gerard Pique (C) argues with Sevilla’s Spanish defender Sergio Reguilon (R) during the Spanish league football match between Sevilla FC and FC Barcelona at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville on June 19, 2020. CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

 

Gerard Pique said La Liga’s title race is Real Madrid’s to lose after Barcelona were held to a goalless draw against Sevilla on Friday.

Barca’s first slip-up since returning from the three-month hiatus hands Madrid the chance to regain top spot this weekend.

After their emphatic 3-0 win over Valencia on Thursday, Zinedine Zidane’s side will move level on points with the Catalans if they beat Real Sociedad on Sunday and above them due to their superior record head-to-head.

“Seeing what we’ve done in the last two rounds, it’s going to be very difficult to win this league,” said a despondent Pique afterwards.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s very hard to see Real Madrid dropping points.”

Sevilla, in third, and Valencia, in eighth, always looked capable of shifting the dynamic at the top of the table, with Madrid capitalising to climb back to the summit for the first time since they beat Barcelona on March 1.

Asked about Pique’s analysis, Barcelona coach Quique Setien said: “I think it comes from frustration. I am optimistic. I think it will be tough for anyone to take maximum points.”

A valuable point for Sevilla, meanwhile, gives them a five-point cushion over Getafe in fifth, albeit having played a game more.

Barca could have few complaints at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

They never really troubled Sevilla for any prolonged period and the closest Lionel Messi came to scoring the 700th goal of his career were a pair of free-kicks tipped over.

The sight of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen jogging up for a late corner demonstrated how big a blow they considered dropping points to be.

Yet Real Sociedad are still in the hunt for Champions League qualification and will offer Madrid no guarantees on Sunday while games against Getafe, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal mean there are still plenty of hurdles for Zidane’s team to overcome.

Barcelona though would appear to have the tougher run-in, with Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and local rivals Espanyol coming up.

Messi was well-contained by Sevilla and it could be the Argentinian was feeling the effects of a third consecutive 90 minutes in nine days.

Setien chose not to rest his captain in either of two comfortable wins over Leganes or Real Mallorca.

Instead, Antoine Griezmann dropped to the bench, with Martin Braithwaite preferred in the front three alongside Messi and Luis Suarez, who made his first start since January after recovering from a knee injury.

Sevilla’s Jules Kounde shot just wide of the post early on but Barcelona controlled the opening 30 minutes, even if chances were few and far between.

Messi’s curled free-kick was headed off the line by Kounde and Braithwaite almost had a tap-in when Tomas Vaclik spilled, but the ball was hacked away.

The half ended with a scuffle and Messi was at the heart of it, squaring up to and then pushing over Sevilla’s centre back Diego Carlos. Messi was unhappy with Carlos’ challenge on Suarez but escaped punishment.

Ever Banega came on at half-time for Sevilla and gave them more purpose in midfield. Munir El Haddadi’s shot from the angle was palmed away by Ter Stegen.

The game opened up in the final 15 minutes as Jordi Alba made a crucial block to prevent Munir’s pass setting up an easy finish in the middle.

Alba might then have teed up a winner too but Suarez swept the defender’s pull-back over the bar.

Sergio Reguilon, on loan at Sevilla from Madrid, had the best chance but he failed to connect with his weaker right foot.

Earlier, Gerard Moreno’s winner gave Villarreal a 1-0 win away at Granada, putting them within touching distance of the top four.

Real Mallorca claimed a 1-1 draw against fellow strugglers Leganes thanks to a stunning late free-kick from Oscar Rodriguez.

Four Things From The Return Of La Liga

La-Liga-Logo
File: La Liga logo

 

La Liga is back after a three-month coronavirus shutdown with games behind closed doors, and with Lionel Messi looking different but playing like he always does.

AFP Sport picks out some of the standout images of the return of top-flight football in Spain:

– Messi back with new look –

More than three months had passed since Messi’s last appearance on a football field. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner will be 33 in little over a week, but while he approaches veteran status, his post-lockdown look is more of a reminder of the young Messi.

The hair is longer and swept over to one side. Most strikingly the beard has gone, leaving the Argentine looking fresh-faced.

La Liga’s leading scorer looked sharp with the ball at his feet too, and scored the final goal of a 4-0 win away in Mallorca — after earlier strikes by Arturo Vidal, Martin Braithwaite and Jordi Alba — as Barcelona moved five points clear of title tivals Real Madrid, who play on Sunday.

– Virus victims remembered –

La Liga’s return is a boost for a football-mad country that has been ravaged by the coronavirus, with more than 27,000 officially recorded deaths making it one of the worst-hit nations worldwide in the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Messi Caps Barcelona Win Over Mallorca On La Liga Return

Like other sports competitions getting going again, strict health protocols mean games in Spain are being played behind closed doors, ensuring unusual atmospheres at matches that would otherwise go ahead in front of large crowds like the derby between Valencia and Levante.

At Mestalla, as elsewhere, a minute’s silence was held before kick-off to remember those victims of Covid-19.

– The new matchday experience –

Without access to stadiums, supporters are still coming together to watch games. However, only a limited number of Barcelona fans could access this supporters’ club in the Catalan capital to watch their team’s game against Mallorca.

Spaced out to respect social distancing measures, and wearing face masks, they took in Barca’s win which allowed the defending champions to extend their lead at the top of the table.

Without fans inside grounds, broadcasters have instead been projecting virtual crowds taken from the computer game FIFA onto seats, and adding crowd chants.

– Suarez boon for Barca –

Barcelona’s first game since March also saw Luis Suarez make his first appearance since early January after injury.

The Uruguayan underwent surgery on a knee problem that at one point threatened to rule him out of the rest of the season, but the coronavirus shutdown has allowed him to come back in time to play a potentially key role in the title run-in.

Suarez replaced Antoine Griezmann in the second half of Barca’s game at Mallorca. He didn’t find the net, but will have a big part to play in the weeks to come, with 10 games left for Quique Setien’s team as they try to fend off Real Madrid’s challenge.

AFP

Zidane Tells Real Madrid To Adopt World Cup Mentality For La Liga Finish

Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane looks on before during the Spanish league football match Real Valladolid FC against Real Madrid CF at the Jose Zorilla stadium in Valladolid on January 26, 2020.
CESAR MANSO / AFP

 

Zinedine Zidane wants Real Madrid to treat their remaining 11 games in La Liga like a World Cup as they aim to overhaul Barcelona to win their second league title in eight years. 

Real sit two points behind Barca and return after three months away against Eibar on Sunday, when they will play in their new training ground home at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium.

La Liga is due to finish on July 19, meaning there will be fixtures every day while clubs will be in action almost every three days for five and a half weeks.

Asked if felt like the start of a World Cup, Zidane said on Saturday: “I like the comparison, I buy into it. My players know what it’s like to play in the final stages of a World Cup or European Championship.

“The important thing is the preparation and I think we have prepared very, very well. Our first match starts tomorrow and we will give everything. I have faith what we have done with the players and now we have to show it on the field.”

La Liga matches are being played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus pandemic, although league president Javier Tebas has said stadiums could be allowed to be 10 to 15 per cent full before the end of the season.

“I don’t like playing without fans, that’s my opinion,” Zidane said. “But as always, we have to adapt. This is the situation. There is a government with people who do their work and we have to do ours.”

Real are playing at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium to allow renovation work to continue at the Santiago Bernabeu this summer.

The capacity is only 6,000 which would mean far fewer fans could attend if the ban is relaxed.

“My players want to play in front of an audience and right now, there isn’t one,” Zidane said. “But if those in charge say we can, well then we’ll see. I have been a player and I prefer to play with fans. But it is not an excuse, we are going to play well.”

Eden Hazard has been included in the squad to face Eibar after he was able to use the break to recover from a foot injury and Marco Asensio is also available again after rupturing his cruciate ligaments last year.

But Zidane said striker Luka Jovic could miss the run-in after injuring his foot at home and Lucas Vazquez is also out.

-AFP