With attacks clicking, Madrid and Barcelona dominate early

<p>
              Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring the opening goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Huesca at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday Sept. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Eric Alonso)
            </p>

MADRID (AP) — With Lionel Messi thriving again and Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale making up for the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona and Real Madrid are threatening to run away early in the Spanish league.

Madrid and Barcelona are the only teams with a perfect start after three matches, earning healthy gaps to other potential title contenders and showing signs the league may he headed for another two-team race.

Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are already five points behind going into the first international break, while Valencia is seven points adrift and Villarreal already trails by eight.

MESSI AND BARCELONA

Barcelona is at the top of the league because it has scored 12 goals, two more than Real Madrid, with both teams conceding twice.

As usual, Messi has been leading the attack for the Catalan club, scoring four goals — two in the 3-0 opening win over Alaves and two in the 8-2 rout of promoted Huesca on Sunday.

The lone scorer in the team’s 1-0 win at Valladolid — another promoted club — was Ousmane Dembele, who has been gaining prominence in the attack alongside Messi and Luis Suarez. Dembele also netted on Sunday, along with Ivan Rakitic and Jordi Alba.

After a lackluster first season with Barcelona, Dembele has gotten off to a solid start.

Ernesto Valverde began with Sergi Roberto in the midfield to support the attack in the opener, but in the last two matches he used Philippe Coutinho as the team’s playmaker in the absence of Andres Iniesta and Paulinho, the midfield duo who left in the offseason. Coutinho was on the bench in the first match, but came in as a substitute and scored a goal.

“I’m happy with how the team has created chances,” Valverde said.

MADRID’S OLD GUARD

There were doubts about whether Madrid could remain an offensive threat after Ronaldo departed for Juventus. The club didn’t sign a top player to replace him, and instead kept Bale and Benzema, who had struggled while the Portuguese forward was still in action in Spain.

It turns out the veteran duo has done more than enough to keep Madrid competitive, with Benzema already scoring four league goals and Bale three.

Not having Ronaldo may have actually helped because it was his absence which allowed his former teammates to thrive again.

Madrid used to play with the ultimate goal of putting Ronaldo in position to score, and when Bale or Benzema played, part of their role was to either open spaces or create opportunities for Ronaldo up front.

Now things have changed, and they are the ones who teammates are looking for in attack. Both have become protagonists and have been working together to share the responsibility of carrying the team’s attack.

“Bale and Benzema are playing brilliantly, but so is everyone else,” Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos said. “Their goals are important, but they’ll only score if everyone does their job and we’re managing that so far. The most vital thing is to win games and having nine points after three games.”