Football: Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman defends Lionel Messi and denies any issue with Antoine Griezmann

MADRID (REUTERS) – Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman has played down notions of a rift between club great Lionel Messi and fellow forward Antoine Griezmann.

Earlier this month, the France international’s former agent, Eric Olhats, told France Football that the Argentinian had a problem with his ex-client, leading Messi to snap at journalists upon his return from international duty.

When asked about the subject ahead of Saturday’s (Nov 21) visit to Atletico Madrid in La Liga, Koeman said the duo get along.

“I can understand why Leo (Messi) snapped. After such a long journey you’re asked about Antoine (Griezmann). It smacks of a lack of respect,” he told a news conference on Friday.

“I know you might be looking for a problem, but in the changing rooms I’ve never seen any notion of a bad relationship between those two.”

Koeman said that Messi – whose contract expires next summer and who has once again been linked with a move to Manchester City after their coach Pep Guardiola signed a new contract – will be the one who decides his future.

“I hope he will stay in Barcelona; it’s unbelievable what he did for this club. But he is the main person to know and make the decision about his future,” he said.

Koeman will be without Ansu Fati, Samuel Umtiti, Sergio Busquets and Ronald Araujo for the trip to Atletico, who sit six points above the Catalans on 17 and are third in the table behind Sociedad and Villarreal.

“It’s an important game, both for our mindset and also the points that are available,” Koeman said.

“We’re on the right track. Atletico are a side who know how to play in different ways, depending on who the opponent is, just like Barca do.”

The Dutchman also criticised the avalanche of games his side are facing, with the visit to Atletico the first of 10 matches in 32 days, on the back of an international break when countries played three times.

“Above all for the big sides it’s a really hectic schedule,” he said. “It’s not good to have three international matches instead of two. I was an international coach and I never took risks with a player: I’d always think about the club, too.”

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Atletico’s philosophical coach Diego Simeone, however, refused to be drawn on the debate surrounding the recent break, despite the Liga club’s Uruguay forward Luis Suarez testing positive for Covid-19 while away.

Suarez, 33, will miss a reunion with his former club after returning a positive test on international duty. His compatriot Lucas Torreira will also be absent for the Catalan outfit’s visit following a positive test of his own.

Simeone, however, said it was not his place to comment and that these things can happen to anyone in all walks of life.

“Getting into all the protocols would be taking a position where it’s not my place to do that,” he said on Friday. “We’re part of society and obviously we’re in a situation where this (a positive Covid-19 test) could happen to anyone,” he told a news conference.

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The match is also an opportunity for Simeone to score a first managerial league victory over the Catalans in nine years.

“Every game is an opportunity and this is no different,” he said. “We’ll try and take the game to where we think we can do them the most harm. We’re up against a side with hierarchy, a squad that’s being refreshed, with some really talented youngsters and more experienced heads.

“It’ll be hard, difficult and complex – as it always is against them.”

Suarez and Torreira are joined by Hector Herrera, Sime Vrsjalko and Manu Sanchez on the treatment table, but there was better news for Simeone as forwards Diego Costa and Yannick Carrasco were passed fit.

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