Whilst our beloved Premier League kicked off last weekend, this weekend was the turn of La Liga Santander to get started in Spain. In one of the bizarre Spanish traditions, all eyes were on the Camp Nou to see last year’s champions Barcelona given their trophy before kick off as they faced up against former Sunderland boss Gus Poyet, now in charge of Real Betis.
The Catalans made it look easy, with a hat-trick from Luis Suarez, two from a blond Lionel Messi, and an opening strike from the much maligned Arda Turan, who replaced Neymar in a more attacking role than previously used. Betis didn’t give up though, with an equaliser from Ruben Castro, the highest scoring Spaniard in 2016, and another strike from their captain to save some embarrassment late on. It was an emotional day though, as Claudio Bravo made what is expected to be his final appearance in Barcelona colours ahead of a move to Manchester City.
That meant that the pressure was on Real Madrid to produce the goods, as they faced a tough trip to the Anoeta to face Real Sociedad without Cristiano Ronaldo. With one defeat and a draw in their last four visits, Zinedine Zidane knew that his side could not afford to slip up early on in the race for the title, but Gareth Bale stepped up to the plate with a powerful header to put the Champions League winners ahead in just the second minute. The Welshman was not expected to last the full 90 after a short pre-season, but he did and added another strike in injury time to wrap up a 3-0 victory after a lob from debutant and sensation Marco Asensio just before half time.
Back in the capital, Atletico were the last of the three big sides to kick off their campaigns as they were held to a dramatic draw by newly promoted side Alaves. Some superb defending looked to have given the new boys a point heading into injury time before Fernando Torres was yanked down, seemingly outside the box, and a controversial penalty was given. Converted by Kevin Gameiro on his debut, Manu went up the other end and smashed one into the bottom corner to bring the scores back level in the 96th minute to the frustration of Diego Simeone.
Even more entertaining was the Saturday late night fixture which featured ten goals as Sevilla eventually saw off Espanyol. A combination of some appalling defending and superb attacking saw Quique Flores, previously of Watford, disappointed as former Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli got off to the perfect manager. 3-3 at half time, Sevilla stretched out a lead in the second half to give them a three goal advantage before Gerard Moreno pulled one back.
On the east coast, Valencia continued their downward spiral with a 4-2 home defeat to Las Palmas. With said to be Barcelona-bound forward Paco Alcacer starting and Arsenal target Shkodran Mustafi pairing Aymen Abdennour, eyed by Everton, in the second half, los Che threw away an early lead thanks to Santi Mina’s brace. Debutant Kevin Prince Boateng was on the scoresheet for the Canary Island side as they got off to a dream start to the season at Mestalla as boos rung around the ground regarding Peter Lim’s management of the club.
Unfortunately not all of the headlines of the opening weekend were for positive reasons, as referee Carlos Clos Gomez was forced to call the derby between Sporting Gijon and Athletic Bilbao to a temporary halt due to racist chanting directed at Inaki Williams. With the game back underway and the chanting halted, Athletic were disappointing, conceding two in the first ten minutes after the break before Isma Lopez missed a penalty to save the score from reaching embarrassing levels.
On the field, Villarreal have had a disastrous few weeks following the loss of popular manager Marcelino. Defeat to a ten man Monaco side in their first leg of a Champions League qualifier, new boss Fran Escriba was delighted when Samuel Castillejo opened the scoring on the hour mark. The joy was shortlived though, with less than 240 seconds passing before Ezequiel Ponce brought Granada back level. Villareal through everything at the hosts but Guillermo Ochoa, of 2014 World Cup fame, held the Yellow Submarine at bay to earn his side a point.
There was also a dream start for Leganes, as the side from a small Madrid suburb defeated Celta Vigo away from home with a 1-0 victory, despite having David Timor sent off from the bench for a touchline skirmish with former Liverpool number nine Iago Aspas. In a heated affair, a 75th minute strike from Victor Diaz was decisive in giving victory to the newly promoted side.
As the first game of the season kicked off on the south coast at Malaga on Friday night, there was drama as former Arsenal starlet Fran Merida, now 26-years-old, was the perfect impact sub to score a late equaliser for another newly promoted side, Osasuna. Last season’s play-off winners stood firm against Malaga, who have invested heavily this summer, and Juande Ramos will be disappointed not to have started better.
So too will Eibar, who continue their La Liga fantasy as one of the smallest clubs to ever maintain such a long stay in the top division. Their season started well with experienced defender Ivan Ramis opening the scoring, but Deportivo had other ideas, as Lucas Perez scored a late penalty with only three minutes left on the clock to give his side the lead to mark a complete turnaround for the Galicians.
With the opening weekend kicking off without many of the league’s biggest stars as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and more, there is a lot more to come as this campaing untails. Atletico will be frustrated to have suffered an early setback in comparison to their rivals, particularly at home to newly promoted Alaves, but they are determined to see off the Vicente Calderon with one last season to remember. With incidents of racism returning to Spain, fans of La Liga will be keen to stamp out the ugly side of the game as soon as possible and will be focusing their attention on the beautiful side, clearly on display with superb finishing from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez amongst others.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by L.F.Salas.