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La Liga roundup: Messi scores, wins game in Setien’s Barcelona debut (video)

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Barcelona’s vintage playing style in their 1-0 win over Granada highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

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Barcelona 1-0 Granda

With a goal from Lionel Messi against an iron-willed Granada, Barcelona are back at the top of La Liga.

The win is the club’s first under Quique Setien, who debuted as the Catalans manager after replacing Ernesto Valverde.

Barcelona rolled back to the years of Pep Guardiola‘s tiki-taka, as they culminated the game with 83 percent possession and completed 1005 passes. That said, Granda – playing  with 10 men from the 69h minute on – were bulletproof until the 76th minute. Messi gently pushed the ball with his weak foot, finishing what had been a series of fluid, build-up passing.

Setien deployed a nuanced 3-4-3 variation – far from Valverde’s 4-3-3 formation that ended up costing him his job after losing to Atletico Madrid in the Super Copa semifinals.

Players like Sergio Busquets were asked about the distinct styles, but he was candidly opposed to comparing the managers and their philosophies.

“We were a solid team. We had control of the ball. They created little against us,” he told Movistar. “It’s true that we struggled when they dropped deep but, in general terms, the team played a good game.

“It’s not about comparing. Every coach has his style and his way of seeing football. You’ll see what Setien asks us to do. We’re not going to reveal it. We’re delighted with what Ernesto did and we’re delighted with Setien.”

With Real Madrid and Atletico right behind, the defending champions have a long way to go this season. They’ll have to build on the win and, more importantly, further deepen their chemistry under the ex-Real Betis boss. Integrating winter signings into the fold might present itself as a challenge, too.

But one thing is certain: Barcelona can still play like they did back in their glory days. If that sticks, a lot can happen.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Mallorca 4-1 Valencia

Real Betis 3-0 Real Sociedad

Villarreal 1-2 Espanyol

Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Celta Vigo

Valverde questioned after another late collapse by Barcelona

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Barcelona had once again played great, led through goals by Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, yet still managed to let it slip away.

Barcelona squandered one of its best performances of the season by conceding two late goals to Atletico Madrid, falling 3-2 in the semifinals of the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia.

Messi had equalized after Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion scored for Atletico, and Griezmann put Barcelona deservedly ahead 2-1. But the goalkeeping of Jan Oblak, Atletico’s star this season, kept Barcelona out the rest of the way while Alvaro Morata leveled with a penalty kick in the 82nd minute and Angel Correa completed the dramatic turnaround in the 86th.

For Barcelona, the chance to add a minor trophy from a mini-tournament played thousands of miles away is not the main worry. The concern is Barcelona’s odd knack of losing control of games that look like a sure victory. Whether it’s a question of overconfidence, a lack of fitness or just momentary lapses that cost the team dearly, the pressure is on coach Ernesto Valverde.

Messi and other team leaders defended Valverde, whose very good overall record at Barcelona has been blemished by shocking defeats.

“It’s normal that when you lose and don’t reach your objectives, and when our fans see that the team is not playing like they would like, that people talk and say things,” Messi said. “We have to be more united than ever, remain a strong group and get through this.

“This year will we try to play like we did today (before the late goals) and not commit childish errors like those we committed today.”

Barcelona’s loss at the King Abdullah Sports City on Thursday came five days after it conceded an 88th-minute equalizer at Espanyol in the Spanish league. The late goal by Wu Lei also came on a desperate counterattack similar to both of Atletico’s late attacks that led to goals, when Barcelona’s backline was out of sync and let a pass through to a player with only goalkeeper Neto to beat. Wu’s goal ruined a superb match by Luis Suarez, who had scored with a fine touch and made a difficult pass for an assist.

Suarez also backed Valverde on Thursday by taking the blame for the stumble against Atletico.

“This loss shows we have room to improve,” the Uruguay striker said. “It shows us that there are mistakes that we can’t make because we were in charge of the game and we let them mount counterattacks. But the coach is not at fault; they were mistakes that we made.”

Barcelona has drawn three of its last four league matches, but still lead the competition on goal difference ahead of Real Madrid. The team was leading before finishing 2-2 at Real Sociedad last month; lost 3-1 at Levante after Messi had put them ahead in November; and gave up a goal in the 81st in a 2-2 draw at Osasuna in August.

Those setbacks would not be as worrisome for Barcelona if the team had not completely collapsed in the Champions League in recent seasons, most recently a humiliating 4-0 loss at Liverpool after winning the first leg of the semifinals 3-0. Valverde’s job was then in even more jeopardy at the end of last season after Barcelona lost the Copa del Rey final to Valencia, casting a shadow of doubt over the Spanish league champions. Club president Josep Bartomeu, however, has stuck by the former player who is known for his intelligence and unflappable attitude.

Valverde is in his third season at Barcelona. He has won back-to-back Spanish league titles and one Copa del Rey final. A European Cup has eluded him.

Valverde said he was used to the criticism as part of a job that was never secure.

“We coaches always work with the idea of giving it our all to each match,” Valverde said. “We know how soccer is and that there is a permanent instability in teams when you are not getting good results or when you lose. Now that we have lost I suppose people will talk about it, but I remain focused on my job.”

Valverde’s next job is to prepare for the visit of Granada on Jan. 19.

In the meantime, Atletico will face crosstown rival Real Madrid in the Super Cup final on Sunday.

La Liga roundup: Last-place Espanyol equal Barcelona late in Catalan Derby

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Espanyol’s thrilling, late draw against cross-town rival Barcelona highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Espanyol 2-2 Barcelona

With a late goal from Wu Lei, Espanyol pulled off a stunning 2-2 derby draw against league leaders and rival Barcelona, who failed to regain their two-point lead at the top of La Liga on Saturday at RCDE Stadium.

Luis Suarez leveled the score with a right-footed, leaping volley in the 50th minute and assisted Arturo Vidal only nine minutes later with a superlative outside-of-the-boot cross well within the box. The Uruguayan ace has either scored or assisted in Barcelona’s last 10 league goals.

Espanyol, playing under newly-appointed manager Abelardo for the first time ever, made it difficult to believe that it was a derby between the best team in the Spanish league against the worst. Los Periquitos came out confident and poised, drawing first blood 23 minutes after David Lopez’s zoomed passed Neto.

The hosts went into halftime up a goal, and even though Barcelona benefited from Arturo Vidal’s inclusion, Espanyol fought back.

Chinese star Lei sent the home fans over the moon after striking the back of the net against a Frenkie de Jong-less, 10-man Barcelona with a minute to play in regular time.

With only a goal differential advantage on Real Madrid, Barcelona host Atletico Madrid on Thursday in the Supercopa semifinal. Espanyol, on the other hand, look to carry their positive momentum to their second round Copa del Rey bout in a weeks time.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 0-3 Real Madrid

Valencia 1-0 Eibar 

Atletico Madrid 2-1 Levante

Messi to extend contract with Barcelona until 2021

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi will play out the best remaining years of his trophy-rich career at Barcelona.

The Spanish club said Wednesday that Messi had agreed a three-year contract extension that will keep him at the club through the 2020-21 season. By then, Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer will be 34 years old and finishing his 17th season with the club.

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Barcelona announced that Messi will sign the new deal “in the coming weeks” that will be good through June 30, 2021.

The contract extension comes as no surprise. Messi has repeatedly said he wanted to play the best years of his career at Barcelona, before perhaps making a return to his native Argentina that he left at 13 years old to come to Barcelona’s famed La Masia training academy.

But with his current contract set to expire at the end of the upcoming 2017-18 season, the club’s board, players, fans and new coach Ernesto Valverde can all breathe easier this summer knowing their star is staying put.

Barcelona released a statement in English calling Messi “the best player in history, who has played his full professional career at Barca and has led the team to an era of extraordinary success, the likes of which has never been seen in world football.”

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Since making his debut with Barcelona’s first team at age 17 in 2004, Messi has established himself as one of the best to ever play the game. He has won the FIFA world player of the year five times, and has become the Spanish league’s all-time leading scorer.

Messi, who turned 30 last month, has scored a club record 507 goals in 583 matches. His honors with the club include four Champions League trophies, eight Spanish league titles and five Copa del Rey titles.

The announcement comes five days after Messi married his childhood sweetheart Antonella Roccuzzo, mother of their two sons.

Messi will now be expected to again lead a Barcelona side that has been eclipsed for the first time in more than a decade by fierce rival Real Madrid, which won both the Champions League and La Liga titles last season.

Report: Messi wanted to leave Barcelona for Man City in 2016

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Lionel Messi was ready to leave Barcelona and Spain last summer, only for teammate Luis Suarez to come to the rescue.

That’s according to a report from Barcelona-based publication Mundo Deportivo, which sensationally claims that following a tax fraud sentence last July from the Spanish government against Messi and his father Jorge, Messi asked club representatives he wanted to leave for a team with plenty of ties to the Blaugrana, Manchester City.

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Barcelona were not prepared to sell Messi according to the report, and they could only let him out of his contract if Manchester City paid the full $279 million release clause, which was more than $100 million more than Manchester City were willing to pay.

Here’s where Suarez enters the story.

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