Ernesto Valverde

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Messi back in training, could be fit for Betis

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi was back in full training again on Wednesday and may be fit to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Messi had been training separately from the squad since injuring his right calf in the preseason.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener on Friday.

Barcelona has not said how long it expects Messi to be sidelined.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Coach Ernesto Valverde is also dealing with injuries to forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Dembele is certain to miss Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou because of a left thigh injury that should keep him out for about five weeks.

Suarez also isn’t likely to play this weekend because of a muscle injury sustained before halftime of Friday’s game in Bilbao.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona hadn’t loss a league opener in 10 seasons.

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Reports: Valverde to stay on as Barcelona coach, after all

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It looks like Barcelona could be holding onto Ernesto Valverde for at least another season.

Multiple reports out of Spain state that after consulting with the club’s directors and executives, Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu has decided against pulling the trigger and firing Valverde. The Spaniard has come under fire from Barcelona fans after two epic collapses in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, leaving Messi and Co. Out of the Champions League final yet again.

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According to Barcelona-based publication Sport, Valverde is staying at Barca because it’s Bartomeu’s final decision, because the club didn’t want to make more than than there’s already expected to be within the squad, and because it didn’t want to cave into public pressure. However, one reason not mentioned in the piece by Sport is whether there’s another manager better suited for the role that’s available.

Roberto Martinez, Ronald Koeman and others have been linked with the job in recent days, but they’re currently under contract to the Belgian National Team and Netherlands National Team, respectively, so Barcelona will not only have to pay out the rest of Valverde’s contract but then buy-out another manager’s contract and then pay them big bucks to come to the Camp Nou. The situation would be the same should Barcelona go after Mauricio Pochettino.

Ultimately, with Frenkie de Jong coming in, France Under-20 star Jean-Clair Todibo and potentially more transfers to freshen up the Barcelona squad, there’s a chance that Valverde can still achieve ultimate club glory, leading the team to the Champions League title.

But it’s clearly a sign of fan expectations that after another tremendous season in La Liga, where Barcelona ran away with the league, fans still had rage for Valverde, in part because of the Champions League finish and also because of accusations that Valverde hasn’t played the “Barcelona way.” Valverde’s players have defended him, but he’s lost the support of the fans.

Next season should be interesting, especially come March and April, when Barcelona is presumably back in the Champions League knockout rounds.

Barcelona reportedly want Martinez to replace Valverde

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A report out of Spain says that Barcelona will cut ties with manager Ernesto Valverde, following a rough finish to its treble-chasing season.

Barcelona ran away with La Liga but coughed up a big second leg lead over Liverpool in the Champions League before losing to Villarreal in the Copa del Rey Final.

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Valverde’s firing would open the door for a familiar name: Roberto Martinez.

The ex- Wigan and Everton boss is under contract with the Belgian national team through 2020, but may find it hard to pass up the opportunity to manage Lionel Messi and the Blaugranas.

Martinez did not dismiss the idea, instead saying he wouldn’t make any moves without speaking to his Belgium bosses.

The 45-year-old Spaniard played with and managed Swansea City and Wigan Athletic before moving to the Toffees, then Belgium. He won League One with Swansea, the FA Cup with Wigan, and led Belgium to third place at the 2018 World Cup.

Would he be a good fit for Barca? The knock on Martinez has often been defending, and Barca has the tools to give him a leg-up on any of those perceiving shortcomings.

Barcelona won La Liga in both of Valverde’s seasons, but were the favorite to win the Champions League only to fall short this season.

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

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MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”

Champions League preview: Barcelona v. Liverpool

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It’s as simple as that, really. When it comes to Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, the Reds can deal with being behind but have little hope with a zero on the board in terms of away goals.

And we know they aren’t playing for 0-0.

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“We need to be completely free,” says Jurgen Klopp. “I know people say we’ve been better in the past couple of years and that Barcelona aren’t the same Barcelona any more but they are a brilliant team.”

It’s Klopp’s first time managing against the Blaugranas, and that presents the question of whether what he’ll bring to the match will be able to flummox Barca or whether the first time dealing with the Catalan club will leave Klopp without answers.

Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde is prepared for a free-flowing Liverpool attack, saying the key to beating the Reds is dealing with their “15-minute” bursts of pressure and surviving the high press.

From Marca:

“They have a set game that feeds the three attackers; they push forward their defense and they want to steal the ball in your area to throw it fast to the forwards,” he noted. “You have to have an answer to their impetus and you have to know how to overcome the suffocating pressure they implement.”

Maybe the Reds can make Barca see ghosts.

Alisson Becker was the goalkeeper when Roma stunned Barca in last season’s quarterfinal.

Then again, he also allowed four goals at the Camp Nou. And Virgil Van Dijk has been there before, and knows it can’t get much worse than the 6-1 loss he suffered with Celtic in 2013.

That’s a long time ago, and both Van Dijk and his supporting cast are far superior to that iteration of the Bhoys.

Klopp and the Reds have had a lot of success in tournament play, making a Europa League and Champions League Final in addition to this season’s semifinal (at a minimum) performance.

“You can’t aim to be legends of the future, you just have to do the work and if someone looks at you like that and thinks ‘legend’ then it happens and it’s all good,” he said.