At halfway point, Barcelona cruising and Madrid reeling

BY AP • January 15, 2018

MADRID (AP) Few saw this coming after a turbulent start to the season for Barcelona.

The Catalan club is the one thriving at the halfway point of the Spanish league, while defending champion Real Madrid is in crisis.

Just five months ago, Barcelona was in turmoil after letting Neymar go to Paris Saint-Germain and losing twice to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

Madrid was coming off its second straight Champions League title and appeared in good position to defend its Spanish league trophy.

But it already trails Barcelona by 19 points and is fighting just to remain in the qualification zone for the Champions League. Zinedine Zidane's team has lost more points (22) than in its entire title-winning campaign last season (21), although it has a game in hand.

Barcelona is cruising with a nine-point lead over second-place Atletico Madrid and an 11-point advantage over third-place Valencia. It is the only unbeaten team left in the top European leagues, having not lost in 29 matches since the two consecutive defeats to Madrid to start the season.

''I have the feeling that we are a very difficult team to beat,'' Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said after Sunday's 4-2 come-from-behind win at Real Sociedad's Anoeta Stadium, where Barcelona hadn't won since 2007. ''The key was not to set lofty goals, go step by step and avoid getting too paranoid in the difficult moments.''

In his first season at the helm, Valverde did a great job putting Barcelona back on track despite the early doubts. A key move by the club was to bring Brazil midfielder Paulinho, who added balance to the team and ended being a perfect replacement for Neymar.

Zidane, meanwhile, was not able to get Madrid to play up to its potential in the league. It struggled a lot early in the season, including at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, where it usually thrives. The team has won only once in its last five matches in all competitions.

Barcelona ended the first half of the league with 51 points, on pace to become the first team to break the 100-point mark since Madrid in 2011-12. It has the best attack with 52 goals and the second-best defense with nine goals, one more than Atletico Madrid.

Lionel Messi, who scored once against Real Sociedad, is the league's scoring leader with 17 goals, four more than Luis Suarez, who found the net twice in Anoeta. Messi reached his 366th league goal all-time, surpassing Gerd Mueller's Bundesliga mark of 365 and becoming the most prolific scorer among Europe's top leagues.

Barcelona's three draws came at Atletico, at Valencia and against Celta Vigo, which was the team's only setback at home. It already played away games against the top five teams in the league standings, including Madrid, winning 3-0 at the Bernabeu.

''We are happy with the season we are having, after the difficult start we had,'' Valverde said. ''It was key to remain united. We hope to maintain this momentum and to keep improving.''

Barcelona's next match is Wednesday at city rival Espanyol in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Barcelona is a three-time defending champion in the cup competition.

Barcelona faces Chelsea next month in the last 16 of the Champions League.


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