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Without Neymar, Messi and Suarez keep Barcelona thriving

January 23, 2018

Barcelona's Messi, right, celebrates with teammate Suarez after scoring against Betis during the La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Betis at the Villamarin stadium, in Seville, Spain on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Miguel Morenatti)

MADRID (AP) — It turns out Barcelona had the solution to its problems right at home.

After starting the season surrounded by doubts following failed attempts to bring in a top player to replace Neymar, Barcelona showed it can do just fine regardless.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez proved they can get the job done by themselves, leading Barcelona to an impressive first half of the season.

With the talented duo thriving, Barcelona became the runaway leader in the Spanish league and stayed alive in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.

Messi and Suarez have combined to score 34 goals in the Spanish league, more than the total tally of all but three other teams.

There was concern when Barcelona failed to sign Philippe Coutinho after Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain in the offseason, but Messi and Suarez made sure the team stayed highly competitive despite not having the extra forward. The Catalan club added young France forward Ousmane Dembele, but the France international got injured and hasn’t been able to play much. Coutinho was eventually signed from Liverpool this month, but hasn’t debuted yet because of an injury.

Messi has been on a level of his own, leading the league in scoring with 19. He has scored nine times in his last 10 games.

The Argentina forward had a mesmerizing performance in a 5-0 rout at Real Betis on Sunday, scoring twice and being applauded by some of the opposing fans.

“We are lucky to be able to see him play,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “I suffered when I was on the other side, now I can enjoy it. It’s a spectacle to be able to watch him. He is the best who will ever play.”

Messi’s second goal on Sunday was one to admire, with the playmaker entering the area and going past two defenders before calmly finding the net.

He also impressed late in the game by escaping from three defenders after being pressured near his own area, changing direction several times while coolly controlling the ball. He finished the play by putting the ball through the legs of one of the defenders.

“He does something different in every game,” Suarez said of Messi. “He was spectacular again. The fans who came to the stadium were able to enjoy the best player in history.”

Suarez has also been impressive.

The Uruguay striker also scored twice against Betis, reaching 100 goals with Barcelona in 114 matches. He is the league’s second-best scorer with 15 goals, and has found the net 10 times in his last eight matches.

His first goal on Sunday was a neat volley from inside the area, and the second was a well-placed shot into the top corner after a set up by Messi.

Barcelona had been unbeaten in 29 matches until last week in a 1-0 loss at Espanyol in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, where Messi failed to convert a penalty kick in a rare miss. Suarez began that game on the bench. The second leg is on Thursday at Camp Nou, where the duo is expected to play from the start.

Messi and Suarez helped Barcelona open an 11-point lead at the start of second half of the Spanish league, its biggest advantage after 20 matches since the 2008-09 season.

Barcelona has a 19-point lead over defending champion Real Madrid, which it beat 3-0 at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium last month with Messi and Suarez — what else? — scoring.

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More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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