League leaders Barca still searching for top gear

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BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona may be flying high at the top of La Liga with 11 wins from 13 games, but there is a tangible feeling they need to take an extra step forward under coach Ernesto Valverde to emulate the great sides of recent years.

On Saturday the Catalans host Celta Vigo, against whom they served up some of their most irresistible displays of the past two years, which Valverde needs to replicate to truly win over the Nou Camp faithful.

Barca hammered Celta 6-1 in 2016 and 5-0 last season with glitzy displays from front three Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. But that attacking flair has been somewhat lacking since Brazilian striker Neymar joined Paris St Germain.

Messi may be the Spanish league’s top scorer with 12 goals, but Suarez has badly underperformed, struggling for fitness after rushing back from a knee injury in September and forced to play in the wide areas previously patrolled by Neymar.

“In general we have controlled every game. But before, with Neymar, we were more unpredictable and we used to put on more of a show,” midfielder Ivan Rakitic told newspaper Mundo Deportivo on Wednesday.

“We have changed everything with the change of system. We’ve gained more balance and unity but we need to improve in killing games off early.”

Barcelona had played with a 4-3-3 formation under Luis Enrique but have since switched to Valverde’s preferred 4-4-2.

“We will entertain fans in some games more than others but in general we’re doing very well and that verve we had before will come sooner or later,” Rakitic added.

Barca lead the standings by four points after drawing 1-1 at nearest challengers Valencia last Sunday, which cut their advantage over Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid to eight points.

They have more points and goals at this stage of the season than the past three under Enrique but have been reliant on Messi, who has scored more than a third of their league goals, and on some vital saves from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Valverde has faced questions over his approach, including accusations that Barcelona have become boring, but midfielder Denis Suarez laughed off such criticism.

“If Barca are boring people while being top of the league, group winners in the Champions League, scoring a lot and conceding few, then I don’t know what to say,” he said.

“We’ve had a big change after getting a new coach and losing one of our best players, but we’ve managed very well.”

Elsewhere on Saturday, champions Real Madrid visit Athletic Bilbao, reeling from a shock King’s Cup defeat to third division Formentera, while Atletico Madrid host Real Sociedad and Valencia travel to Getafe.