Uruguay's Valverde emerges as Madrid scorer before World Cup

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With the World Cup less than three weeks away, Uruguay midfielder Federico Valverde is blossoming into a potent scoring threat for Spanish leader Real Madrid.

The 24-year-old Valverde has long been valued for his hustle as a box-to-box midfielder who excels in his ability to launch counterattacks with his dribbling speed. But he has emerged as the breakout player in Spain this season thanks to his newly discovered knack for scoring goals, particularly with a sizzling strike from long range.

Valverde has scored eight times in 18 appearances for Madrid this season, second only to Vinícius Júnior’s team-high 10 goals. And he is only getting better with the World Cup approaching, netting four goals and making two assists in his last five games.

The midfielder will likely get another chance on Monday when Madrid, holding a one-point lead over Barcelona at the top of the Spanish league, plays a derby at Rayo Vallecano. There will then be one more set of league matches before play pauses for the World Cup in Qatar.

Valverde's recent goals have coincided with the absence of France forward Karim Benzema, who has taken some time off to recover from what Madrid says is “muscle fatigue."

Speaking about Valverde and fellow youngsters Vinícius and Rodrygo, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said “they have no limits.”

“Not having Karim has added more responsibility to everyone’s game, especially the forwards. They’ve shouldered this responsibility and they’re delivering,” Ancelotti said. ”(Valverde) got such a good shot on him. He’s capable of scoring many more.”

Valverde had mostly played as an interior midfielder, but he is now flourishing in a more attacking role as well. He has scored with powerful shots from outside the area in recent wins over Barcelona, Sevilla, and, most recently, Wednesday’s 5-1 rout of Celtic to secure first place in Group F of the Champions League.

“There were a lot of people close to me who were quite right that I should take advantage of my shot and I’m doing that now and quite enjoying it,” Valverde said after the victory over Celtic. “I like to strike it on the laces, it’s my best shot, but I also sometimes like to hit it with the inside of my foot when I feel confident.

"They always joke with me that one day I’ll break the ball.”

In his previous five seasons as a Madrid player, he had never scored more than three times. Last year, he only found the net once. But he did provide the assist for Vinícius to score the only goal in Madrid’s 1-0 win over Liverpool in the Champions League final, taking the club’s record haul of European Cups to 14.

Valverde made his international debut in 2017 but was left off the 2018 World Cup squad. Since then he has been a regular for his nation, helping Uruguay reach the Copa America quarterfinals in 2019 and 2021.

Now he is poised to play at his first World Cup in Qatar under coach Diego Alonso, who has included him on his provisional squad list. Valverde has played all five friendlies Uruguay has had in recent months to prepare for the team's opening match against South Korea on Nov. 24. Uruguay will also face Portugal and Ghana in Group H.

Also, Barcelona hosts Almería on Saturday aiming to put pressure on Madrid with a victory.

Atlético Madrid, in third place, hosts Espanyol on Sunday after it concluded its poor Champions League campaign by finishing its group in last place for the first time.

Fourth-place Real Betis is level on points with Atlético before it faces a struggling Sevilla in a Seville derby, also on Sunday.

___

AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press