Barcelona to be challenged in tough stretch of away matches

Barcelona to be challenged in tough stretch of away matches
FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi, left, celebrates after scoring with his teammate Paulinho, center, and Denis Suarez during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Eibar at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

By Tales Azzoni, Associated Press

MADRID (AP) — The next few weeks will probably feel like a long road trip for Barcelona, and not a very fun one.

Barcelona plays five of its next six games away from Camp Nou, a stretch that will pose a tough challenge and could slow the team's momentum after what has been an almost perfect start to the season.

Barcelona has been cruising with 12 wins in its last 13 matches in all competitions, but has yet to face such a difficult run of games.

Barcelona's next road opponents will be Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish league and Olympiakos in the Champions League. The team returns home for a difficult game against Sevilla, and then goes back on the road to face Leganes, sixth in the Spanish league and one of sensations this season.

Next up will be second-place Valencia, one of the hottest teams in the league, and the final away game will be a high-profile encounter against Italian champion Juventus.

A good run through the difficult stretch could help set up the rest of the season for Barcelona, which has a four-point lead over Valencia in the Spanish league and a three-point advantage over Juventus in Group D of the Champions League.

Barcelona's first stop will be at San Mames Stadium in Bilbao, a place Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde knows well.

Valverde spent four seasons with Athletic before joining Barcelona this season. He also coached Athletic from 2003-05, and is the manager with most matches in the team's history. He also played for the club as a striker from 1990-96.

"We are only focused on this game against Athletic," Valverde said. "It will be very difficult. Athletic is an extremely strong team when it plays at home. To win there you have to play with a lot of heart."

Valverde led Athletic to victory over Barcelona in the final of the 2015 Spanish Super Cup, which marked the team's first title in more than three decades.

The good news for Barcelona is that the Bilbao team has been struggling recently, winning only one of its last 10 games in all competitions. Its latest disappointing result was a 1-1 draw at third-division club Formentera in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday.

Barcelona has won the last seven league games against Athletic.

Valverde faces another former club when Barcelona travels to Greece to play Olympiakos, a club he coached in the 2007-08 season. Barcelona defeated the Greek club 3-1 at Camp Nou last week.

"These two matches will be very special for me," Valverde said. "Both will be very difficult."

After the home game against Sevilla, Barcelona will take on southern Madrid club Leganes, which hasn't lost since its third match this season. Playing in its second season in the first division, Leganes has been one of the biggest surprises in Spanish soccer so far.

Another has been Valencia. It has one of the league's best offenses and has won six straight games in all competitions. Valencia won four of its five games at Mestalla Stadium this season, with the only setback a 0-0 draw against Atletico Madrid.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Barcelona will be against Juventus in Turin. Barcelona convincingly defeated Juventus 3-0 at Camp Nou in September, but the Italian club was depleted by injuries. Barcelona and Juventus met in the 2015 Champions League final, with the Spaniards winning the title.

Barcelona will be rested entering the away run as Valverde gave some time off to Lionel Messi and nearly all of his regular starters in the 3-0 win at Murcia in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday.

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