The Catalan side’s superb form since the start of 2021 has lifted them to within touching distance of the top of the table

Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman admits he did not expect his side to still be in the title race after their poor start to the season.

The Catalan giants are currently third in La Liga, behind Real Madrid only on goal difference, but can go one point clear of leaders Atletico if they win their game in hand against Granada on Thursday.

That represents a remarkable turnaround for Koeman’s side, who were 10 points behind Atletico down in sixth place at the turn of the year.

What did Koeman say?

Barca’s final game of 2020 was a laboured 1-1 draw at home to Eibar, but they have looked a team transformed in 2021.

Koeman’s side have won 15 out of 17 La Liga matches, with their only defeat coming against Real Madrid earlier this month, to fire themselves back into title contention.

Victory at Camp Nou on Thursday would put the title race in their own hands with five games remaining.

“It is important to win because we are in a moment where we know we can be leaders and it can be a reward, but first we have to win,” Koeman told reporters.

“It’s one game at a time. If you look back, it’s an unexpected situation. We had a big points difference and it’s something big that we’ve achieved, the opportunity to fight to win La Liga

“In the last 17 games, almost half of the season, we have 15 wins. That’s impressive.

“And it had to be like this, because otherwise we wouldn’t be fighting for the title.”

Koeman shuts down Messi talk

Koeman was asked about reports suggesting Paris Saint-Germain had offered Lionel Messi a two-year contract, but he would not be drawn on the rumours.

“I’m not interested in what has come out [in the press] because I don’t know if it’s true and because I hope he stays with us,” he said.

“I’ve said several times that he [surely] has to finish [his career] here, but it’s a decision he has to make.”

Koeman pleased with forward’s output

Koeman did, however, praise his forward line for improving their goal output during the second half of the campaign, including Antoine Griezmann, who scored twice in last weekend’s 2-1 win against Villarreal

The club were criticised in some quarters for failing to sign an out-and-out replacement for Luis Suarez last summer.

“We have to remember that, for example, [Ansu] Fati has been out for five months. We have created more goalscoring opportunities [recently], we have scored more. The team has done a great job offensively.

“During the summer I told him (Griezmann) he was an important player.

“Of course I had been critical about the forwards not taking chances, and also Antoine. But he’s a guy I like, he works for the team and gives his all. Now he is more confident.

“The first goal he scored against Villarreal, you can’t score that if you’re lacking confidence. He’s in an important and good spell of form.”

Barca ‘working’ on possible transfers

Koeman also revealed the club are working on potential new signings over the summer, though he concedes their current financial situation may limit what they can do in the transfer market.

“Of course we are working on next season, like any coach and any club,” he said.

“As a coach I always try to improve the team, but it depends on the economic situation of the club because, in the end, the club and the president are in charge.

“Whether a signing is possible or not, we are talking because there is [still plenty of] time.”

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