Friday 20 October 2017

Barca lifted by Messi's new deal

Argentinian superstar set to become world's highest paid player, writes Mark Ogden

Lionel Messi has signed a new contract with Barcelona with whom he will attempt to win another La Liga title tonight. Photo: REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino
Lionel Messi has signed a new contract with Barcelona with whom he will attempt to win another La Liga title tonight. Photo: REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino

Mark Ogden

Lionel Messi has committed his future to Barcelona until 2019 by accepting an improved £16.3m-a-year contract that will make him the world's highest-paid footballer on the eve of the club's La Liga decider against Atletico Madrid tonight.

A Barcelona victory over leaders Atletico in the Nou Camp would secure the title for Gerardo Martino's team, with the under-pressure Argentinian coach claiming that such a success would be the first title won "as normal people", with the "other titles won by a team of extra-terrestrials".

With tonight's game marking the end of Carles Puyol's career at the club, and injured goalkeeper Victor Valdes also bidding farewell to the Nou Camp this summer, there is a sense of the occasion signalling the end of an era in which Barca have been the pre-eminent force in Spanish and European football.

But with Messi putting an end to persistent speculation of his discontent in Catalonia by agreeing his new contract, which means he eclipses Cristiano Ronaldo as the best-paid player on the planet, those who are set to remain with Barca insist that a victory against Diego Simeone's Atleti will be a "historic" moment to match any of the club's greatest achievements in recent years.

"It is a great final, a fantastic match," Barcelona midfielder Xavi said.

"It would be the icing on the cake for this generation, playing such an important match as this. This is a great generation, and this is a historic opportunity. It is a unique game."

Having drawn 2-2 at home to Getafe two weeks ago to fall three points behind Atletico, who had played one game fewer, many of Barcelona's leading players abandoned hope of thwarting a Madrid procession for either Atleti or Real.

But a series of unexpected results over the past fortnight has ended Real's hopes and left Barca knowing that a win tonight will deny Atleti their first title in 18 years, with the clubs' head-to-head record this season favouring Martino's team should they finish level on points.

"We really believed we had no chance, but maybe we gave up too soon," Xavi said. "We thought we had lost the league and these things happen in football. But now it's in our hands. It is a very important title and we have to be together, but we are still hungry and people should be encouraged.

"One of the keys to the game is to score first, and get them (Atletico) to move forward more. They have the best defence in Europe, but they also have great attacking options."

LEADING

Central to Atletico's hopes is the fitness of 36-goal leading scorer Diego Costa, who trained yesterday following a hamstring strain and will be fit to face Barcelona according to Simeone, who has guided Los Rojiblancos to a Champions League final against Real Madrid after overcoming Barca in the quarter-finals.

"He (Costa) is fine," Simeone said. "He ended the training session again without any problems. He will play from the start."

Atletico, who will be backed by just 447 supporters in the Nou Camp, will win the title if they avoid defeat and become the first club to break the Real-Barca stranglehold on La Liga since Rafael Benitez guided Valencia to the championship 10 years ago.

"I never imagined a situation where at one point we were seven points ahead of Madrid and six in front of Barca, albeit they had games in hand," Simeone said.

"Even then, though, Barca never gave up and that is a very important value for them.We have two rivals who always compete to be where we are. Normally they win all the time, but this year it hasn't been like that.

"We are in a moment where no one is thinking about what is coming next week (in the Champions League final). Given the respect we have for the league, that is our sole focus. It seems strange to say it, but it is a league final."

While Simeone's status as one of world football's rising coaches is secure, regardless of the outcome of his team's season, even a La Liga title may not be enough to keep Martino in a job at Barcelona.

Recruited last summer to replace Tito Vilanova, who died last month following a battle against cancer, Martino has endured fierce criticism from the Catalan media and is expected to be replaced when the season ends.

And the prospect of former Barcelona midfielder Luis Enrique returning to the Nou Camp to succeed Martino grew yesterday when the 44-year-old resigned as coach of Celta Vigo.

"The time has come to announce that I am not staying in Vigo next season," Luis Enrique said. "Believe it or not, but right now, I don't know which team I will be coaching next season." (© Daily Telegraph)

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