Luis Suarez has Barcelona on course to win 2 titles in Spain

AP

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FC Barcelona's Luis Suarez eyes the ball before the Spanish Copa del Rey, semifinal, second leg, soccer match between FC Barcelona and Valencia at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Feb. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Luis Suarez hitting his stride is a big reason why Barcelona is on course for two titles in Spain this season.

Suarez has shaken off his troubles scoring during the first three months of the season and netted 14 in his last 15 matches.

That scoring run has played a key part in Barcelona establishing a commanding nine-point lead in the Spanish league, and making the final of the Copa del Rey. In those semifinals against Valencia, Suarez scored the sole goal in the opening leg, and gave two assists in the second leg this week in an aggregate 3-0 win.

Suarez said an injury to his right knee in August kept him from playing his best as Barcelona was adjusting to new coach Ernesto Valverde, and to Neymar's record-breaking move to Paris Saint-Germain which broke up the formidable attack trio with Suarez and Lionel Messi.

"I was very worried, not so much for not scoring, because I have been through these dips before. (But) my knee felt bad and I was afraid it would affect me psychologically. My attitude and level of intensity weren't the same," Suarez told Barcelona's La Vanguardia newspaper this week. "Then in November I felt great. I could rest, recover and change my outlook psychologically."

Asked by Valverde to help out more in constructing than finishing attacks, the Uruguayan striker saw his production suffer and managed only five goals in his first 14 matches.

But as Barcelona settled under Valverde and its players kept winning without Neymar, Suarez is once again flourishing as its No. 9.

"Neymar's exit was a blow to our morale," Suarez said. "But we pulled through it because of the mentality and the confidence of our coaches, which has been fundamental, spectacular. . Tactically, we have also changed. Before, we had the problem that teams would hit us on counterattacks, but we solved that by strengthening our midfield and playing with our wing backs higher up the pitch."

Both of Suarez's assists at Valencia came when he slid over to the left flank of the attack, a spot that once belonged to Neymar.

He helped put Barcelona in charge shortly after halftime by passing for Philippe Coutinho to score his first goal for the side.

Suarez used a sleek change of foot to breeze past Valencia defender Ezequiel Garay before he sliced a cross to the far post where his former Liverpool teammate hooked the ball back inside the other upright.

Suarez next came close to also setting up Messi, only for goalkeeper Jaume Domenech to save his shot after Suarez found Messi near the penalty spot.

Suarez did his part to make it 2-0 with eight minutes remaining when he pressured Valencia defender Gabriel Paulista and intercepted his pass. He then stayed upright when avoiding a tackle before he slid the ball over for Ivan Rakitic to fire home.

Suarez said he has learned the value of being a team player, not just a scorer, while helping Barcelona win six major titles in the past three seasons.

"When I arrived here I told myself that it would be difficult to adapt my way of playing," Suarez said. "I needed more space, I was used to playing in the Premier League. But even though I have fewer spaces, I fulfill my role in the square meters that I do have. And I notice that when I pressure defenders to recover the ball it spreads to the whole team."

Second to Messi on the La Liga scoring list with 16 - plus three in the Copa del Rey - Suarez went scoreless through all six games of the Champions League group phase.

Yet he has been on fire since Barcelona played its last European match on Dec. 5. Suarez found the net in 10 of his next 11 matches.

After Spanish league matches against Getafe and Eibar, Suarez will get his chance to break his dry run in Europe on Feb. 20 when Barcelona starts its Champions League round-of-16 tie at Chelsea.

Suarez's career has been tarnished by his bad behavior, including three incidents of biting an opposing player. His last bite of an Italy defender in the 2014 World Cup spurred Liverpool to sell him to Barcelona.

While maintaining his aggressive style, Suarez has avoided any serious outbursts or violent incidents in Spain.

"You have to take advantage of every small detail," Suarez said. "I can argue with a defender and I have more chances of getting him sent off. and the defender can do the same with me. There is a limit, of course, but squabbles form part of the essence of football."

Suarez missed last year's Copa del Rey final after being sent off in the semifinals, and he was at risk of missing another final if he picked up a yellow card on Thursday.

His clean play means that, barring injury, Suarez will feature in Barcelona's attack against Sevilla on April 21 when it will seek a fourth consecutive cup.

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