Frenkie de Jong making big strides in Barcelona’s midfield

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Frenkie de Jong is already playing like the future star Barcelona hoped he would be.

The 23-year-old Netherlands midfielder, who joined from Ajax two years ago, has scored four goals this month while also playing a key part in creating other goals with his passing.

De Jong has been at his best over the past week. Last weekend, he scored one goal and set up another in a 2-0 win at Elche to lead the team with Lionel Messi suspended. On Wednesday, De Jong made a key pass that put Antoine Griezmann in position to assist Messi in a 2-1 victory at Rayo Vallecano in the round-of-16 of the Copa del Rey.

Barcelona’s streak of four league wins — all on the road — have kept the team from falling completely out of the league title race, which is led by Atlético Madrid. Barcelona, along with Sevilla, is also among the favorites to win the Copa del Rey with Atlético and Real Madrid eliminated.

“We are on a good run,” De Jong said after match at Rayo. “We are playing well as a team, growing each week, and we just need to keep it going.”

Barcelona will have its next test at home on Sunday when it hosts a vastly improved Athletic Bilbao team under coach Marcelino García Toral.

Two weeks ago, Bilbao upset Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup final. The Basque team equalized in the 90th minute and snatched a 3-2 victory on Iñaki William’s injury-time goal. The disappointing loss for Barcelona was made worse as Messi earned his first ever red card for the club and was suspended for two matches for hitting an opponent in the final minutes.

While Barcelona coach Ronaldo Koeman has toyed with his lineups this season, De Jong has been a constant fixture, along with Messi and young playmaker Pedro “Pedri” González.

De Jong’s ability to pick his moments for runs into the area has given Barcelona an added dimension that Koeman has insisted is key to getting the team back to playing its best. De Jong scored two goals in 42 games last season. He already has five in 27 this season.

“I am arriving more to the area and that means I am scoring more than before,” De Jong said.

For Koeman, De Jong is an even better player than the one that helped Ajax reached the 2019 Champions League semifinals after ousting both Real Madrid and Juventus. Barcelona paid 75 million euros ($85.5 million) to bring him to Spain that season.

“We need him. We need our midfielders to be attack-minded,” Koeman said. “He is a very technically skilled player. He helps us build the attack from the midfield. We talked with him about helping more in attack, scoring more than just one goal per season. He is a more complete player now than when he played for Ajax.”

Bilbao will be heading to the Camp Nou on an impressive run after beating both Madrid and Barcelona to win the Spanish Super Cup before routing Getafe 5-1 in the league.

Earlier on Sunday, Atlético will visit Cádiz looking to extend its run of seven straight victories in the league. The team is seven points clear of second-place Madrid with a game in hand. Barcelona is another three points back.

Luis Suárez, which cash-strapped Barcelona practically gave away to Atlético, has scored three goals in the team’s last two victories, both coming from behind. Suárez and Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri lead the league in scoring with 12 goals each.

Madrid plays at home on Saturday against a mid-table Levante team that has only lost twice in the last 14 matches.

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