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MADRID (AP) Barcelona started preparing for a key Spanish league match against Valencia even before stepping out onto the field to face Juventus in the Champions League.

They put Lionel Messi on the bench.

The Argentina forward, who is rarely rotated out of the starting lineup, did end up playing in Wednesday’s 0-0 draw, coming on in the 56th minute. But it was clearly a move designed to keep some distance between the top two teams in the Spanish standings.

”We decided that for once he could rest,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. ”Naturally, it was a tough decision to make. It was a risky call, because he is the best in the world, but we felt that it was the right match to do it.”

Barcelona holds a four-point lead over Valencia, which is coming off eight-straight victories. Barcelona has won 11 of its 12 league games.

The few times Messi had been left out of Barcelona’s starting 11 in recent years came after injury layoffs or long trips with Argentina’s national team.

Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said he was surprised to see Barcelona’s starting lineup without Messi, who has scored 16 goals this season.

”I’ve been facing him since 2010, and this is the first time that I see Messi sitting on the bench,” Allegri said. ”I got worried when I saw that he was coming into the match, but our players did a good job defending against him.”

Barcelona, Valencia and Atletico Madrid are the only unbeaten teams in Spain.

Valencia’s surprising start is partly because of its thriving offense, which has outscored opponents 33-11. The team’s attack is led by Italian striker Simone Zaza, the league’s second-best scorer with nine goals.

Third-place Real Madrid, which is 10 points off the lead, will host struggling Malaga on Saturday.

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

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


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