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Barcelona president defends Messi & offers better contract, coach takes blame

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BARCELONA, Spain — Barcelona's president and manager defended Lionel Messi on Saturday from criticism for his erratic play during the team's recent collapse, and made sure to stamp out any talk of the club's all-time leading scorer leaving Camp Nou.

Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said the club would offer to improve Messi's contract so he "will lead the future" of the team, while coach Gerardo Martino diverted the blame for their struggles to his own coaching performance.

In the past two weeks, Barcelona has been eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid, and fallen behind in third place in the Spanish league.

Messi has been hammered in the media for his lackluster showings in each loss, when he appeared to give little effort to help his side for long periods.

"We are being unfair to Leo," Bartomeu told Esport3 television channel. "Our club members need to understand that we must take care of Messi. He has made such an important contribution to this club and he will continue to do so. That's why we have no doubt that he will lead the future of the club. He is young, he is the best player in the world, and we believe in him."

Bartomeu said the club will offer Messi a "modification" of his contract that ties him to the Catalan club until 2018.

"We want to improve it because he deserves it and to adapt it to football's current circumstance," Bartomeu said.

He added that he and his board would complete the remaining two years of their mandate.

PHOTO: Barcelona's coach Gerardo Martino of;;owe the action from the side line during the final of the Copa del Rey between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Barcelona's coach Gerardo Martino of;;owe the action from the side line during the final of the Copa del Rey between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

However, the squad looks set to undergo an overhaul, if Barcelona can find a way to get FIFA to remove its one-year ban on signing new players it handed out for violations in its signing of youth players.

Bartomeu said sports director Andoni Zubizarreta would lead a project to carry out a "profound remodeling" of the team.

Bartomeu avoided comment on the future of Martino beyond the five remaining Spanish league games.

At a news conference following team training, Martino dismissed speculation that Messi's mini-dip in form might lead to his departure at the end of the season.

"That people are talking about Messi's future surprises us, I don't take those comments seriously," Martino said. "A football player, when he finds himself in these types of circumstances, focuses on the game. Sometimes they can play better or worse, but since it is (Messi) everything is overblown. His future must be in Barcelona until he stops playing."

Martino is approaching the end of a tumultuous first year of a two-year contract. It is widely expected he will be fired this summer, unless Barcelona can pull off an unlikely recovery to overtake league leader Atletico and Madrid.

Martino accepted his responsibility for the team's sudden decline, which will likely leave it without a major trophy for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

"I am not satisfied with my job done," the Argentine said. "When you don't get results, you can't be satisfied. This team is accustomed to winning and, leaving aside the Spanish Super Cup, to have no chances in two competitions and almost none in the third means I can take nothing positive from my performance."

Barcelona hosts Athletic Bilbao on Sunday needing to win to stay within four points of Atletico as the season nears its end. It will be without the injured Neymar, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes, while Sergio Busquets is suspended.

Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde has been rumored to be a possible replacement for Martino if he is let go.

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