FC Barcelona's coach Ernesto Valverde takes part in a training session at the Miniestadi stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Jan 5, 2018. (MANU FERNANDEZ / AP)
Despite kicking off his time in charge at Barca with a defeat to Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup in August, the former Athletic Club Bilbao boss has been able to turn things around and his side are unbeaten in the Liga Santander with a nine-point lead over Atletico Madrid and a 14-point advantage over traditional rivals, Real Madrid, whom they humiliated 3-0 in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium just two days before Christmas.
Such a turnaround hadn't looked on the cards in the summer as Barca were reeling from the loss of Brazilian striker Neymar to Paris Saint Germain and seemingly struggling to find a replacement.
Messi is the best player in the entire world. He does something extraordinary with every ball he touches
"Neymar's departure was a difficult moment for the club. We can't deny that," said Valverde in an interview on the Barca official website.
Ousmane Dembele finally arrived from Borussia Dortmund to try and fill the large Neymar-shaped gap in the Barca squad, but the coach admits the 20-year-old is not a direct replacement for the Brazilian.
"Any Barca player is a different player. Dembele's profile was different to anything we had."
"He is able to play in various positions and is very fast. We have a big squad, we've made good replacements up to now."
Dembele's impact has so far been limited by a serious injury suffered in Getafe in September, but Valverde said the striker was "coming back," in the near future.
Meanwhile Leo Messi continues to lead Barca from the front with 15 goals and countless assists this season.
"Messi is the best player in the entire world. He does something extraordinary with every ball he touches. We have the incredible good fortune to have him at our club and to have his enormous commitment to the club and the team," commented Valverde.
Barca kick off 2017 on Thursday when they travel to play Celta Vigo in the King's Cup on Thursday evening.
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