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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — There is a clear winner of the Spanish league as it approaches the midway point.
Four months into his first season as Barcelona's coach, Valverde has helped the team to recover from the shock exit of Brazil star Neymar and take a commanding lead of the Spanish league.
The 53-year-old Valverde was already considered one of Spain's top coaches for his stints at Athletic Bilbao, Valencia, Espanyol and Greek club Olympiakos before he replaced Luis Enrique. But he started the season under the most pessimistic conditions of any of Barcelona's coaches since Pep Guardiola's debut in 2008.
Real Madrid had just won the Champions League and La Liga titles before Barcelona was left reeling by Neymar's move to Paris Saint-Germain.
That was followed by two demoralizing losses to Madrid in the curtain-raising Spanish Super Cup. And with the season just under way, Ousmane Dembele — the forward signed by Barcelona to replace Neymar — tore a tendon in his right leg.
But while everyone else feared a disaster, Valverde saw an opportunity.
The departure of Neymar broke up Barcelona's fearsome attack with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. But despite their goals, their erratic contributions in defense had left Barcelona exposed at the back. Valverde turned Neymar's loss into a collective gain.
He refocused the team on first being defensively sound — by either playing another midfielder, or a forward who applied more pressure when the team lost the ball.
The success of former Barcelona forward Valverde is undeniable: 25 matches across all competitions without a loss since that pair of defeats to Madrid. It also tops the Spanish league for fewest goals conceded (7) and goals scored (45).
And Valverde got the biggest prize of all last Saturday when he out-coached Zinedine Zidane in a 3-0 victory at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu.
Barcelona has sprinted to a commanding lead of the league title race after 17 of 38 rounds.
Second-place Atletico Madrid trails by nine points, Valencia by 11, and Madrid by 14, although it has a game in hand.
The calendar also favors the Catalan club, which will host its top rivals in the second half of the season. Barcelona already drew 1-1 at both Atletico Madrid and Valencia before humbling Madrid in front of its fans.
Atletico is expecting a boost from the return of Diego Costa and the arrival of Victor "Vitolo" Machin in January when the club's FIFA-imposed ban on registering new players ends.
Atletico's elimination from the Champions League may also let it focus on catching Barcelona, although it will enter the Europa League and is also contending in the Copa del Rey.
PICK OF THE PLAYERS
Once again, Messi is driving Barcelona toward the title.
Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo may have matched him with his fifth Ballon d'Or award, but Messi is outscoring him 15-4 in the league. The Argentine has continued to flourish under Valverde as a free-ranging forward, floating across the front of the attack and back into midfield as he probes for weaknesses in the defense.
Andres Iniesta, who was often rested by Luis Enrique in league matches, is featuring more under Valverde and thriving with the consistent playing time, while newcomer Paulinho has impressed by bulking up Barcelona's midfield.
Saul Niquez, Atletico's 23-year-old midfielder, is among the most well-rounded players in the league, proving a goal-scoring threat when he goes forward, along with sound passing and tackling in defense.
Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas has also impressed. His 11 goals are second only to Messi and have earned him a chance to fight for a spot on Spain's World Cup squad.
While Marco Asensio was the hot topic following his goals against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, Madrid's 21-year-old forward has fallen out of Zidane's favor as the months go by.
Carlos Soler has surfaced as the latest promising talent at Valencia. The 20-year-old midfielder has shown excellent passing skills and is a large reason for the team's successful campaign after struggling in recent years.
At age 21, Rodrigo "Rodri" Hernandez has excelled since replacing the injured Bruno Soriano in the heart of Villarreal's midfield. Rodri leads the league in balls recovered in defense. He is reported to be close to a move to Atletico after also triggering interest from Barcelona.
While Valencia is finally on course to return to Spain's elite under Marcelino Garcia Toral, the real shock so far is the performance of two teams that won promotion last summer.
Both Getafe and top-flight debutante Girona have forced their way into the top half of the table. Girona stunned Madrid 2-1 and drew 2-2 with Atletico.
Manchester City's Abu Dhabi owners invested in Girona in August.
POINTS TO PROVE
Success in the Champions League, Spanish league, UEFA Super Sup, Spanish Super Cup and Club World Cup — titles all conquered in a calendar year — should isolate any coach from criticism.
Not at Real Madrid. And certainly not after a big loss to Barcelona that has all but ended its hopes of retaining the title.
Zidane is facing his first crisis as Madrid's coach for his team's poor play in the league that hit a low point against Barcelona.
He has been widely questioned for both his insistence on starting Karim Benzema despite his lack of goals and for not starting playmaker Francisco "Isco" Alarcon against Barcelona.
Zidane will need to reduce the distance with Barcelona to keep Madrid's supporters happy while he seeks a third-consecutive European Cup.
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