Friday 28 Aug
Villarreal v. Espanyol 8:30
Villarreal started off the Liga season with a draw at Real Betis that could have easily been a loss. They played a 4-4-2 formation with Liga refugee Roberto Soldado (AKA Bobby Soldier) and Atletico loanee Leo Baptistao up top. Lack of striking options were a concern for Villa and this match seemed to highlight that. Baptistao looked out of his element on the new team, but is a young, well-rated player and will hopefully settle in. Soldado rang in a glowing return to Liga with his first goal coming after 31 minutes after going an entire Premier League season scoring only once. Left back Jaume Costa put in a nice performance with five tackles and an interception. He also made the beautiful cross that Soldado had no trouble putting away. Bruno will miss the next match, having received a straight red.
Espanyol got off on the right foot with three points against Getafe, with holding midfielder Victor Sanchez putting in a good shift, clearing what would be a goal from the line. Otherwise it was an uninteresting match in which Getafe had most of the possession and shots, but Espanyol was never really troubled, and did much more with their own limited chances. The game had little excitement, though, outside of Salva Sevilla’s beautiful free kick goal. Sanchez was one of many Espanyol players busy dispossessing Getafe and trying to catch them on a counter, though they found themselves offside often. Exciting Madrid prospect Burgui also made his debut for Espanyol. This week, Alvaro Gonzalez is still expected to play even after breaking his nose, while Marco Asensio has joined on loan from Real Madrid and will look to get an appearance.
Espanyol will travel to Villarreal and meet a club that essentially does the same thing they do, but better. This will be a tough away game for Espanyol at the Madrigal. I expect a low-scoring match, but I believe Villa have enough to win this one. 1-0.
Saturday 29 Aug
RSD v. Gijon 6:30
Low-scoring is the theme of the week and RSD was no different drawing at Deportivo. Neither side really deserved to win over the other, though they both played reasonably well. RSD’s ‘keeper, Geronimo Rulli, is a future star, and right back Alberto De La Bella put in a very industrious shift. They mostly tried to play through balls from Prieto down the left-side. Bruma started on the right-side and was reasonably OK for a 20 year old playing his first Liga game ever. Their defensive solidarity is unquestioned, but Bruma and Prieto need to continue working on giving their strikers good chances. Vela should be back to full strength now, and Mikel Gonzalez is back from suspension, but the same XI could be the same.
Gijon had a good week, landing Alen Halilovic on loan and drawing against superpower Real Madrid. Again, it was a low (no) scoring match, but one packed with excitement, as Sporting Gijon’s return to La Liga made for an incredible atmosphere. The fans showed up in full force to show their support, and even to take a few personal shots at Real Madrid (someone took Barcelona stickers and applied one on top of each image of past trophies won that adorns the bus). They played in solidarity, ran themselves absolutely ragged, and survived an onslaught of attack late on, and could not ask for a much better first day back in the league. They even saw what appeared in replay to be a goal, but it was ultimately judged not to have crossed the goal line during play. Hopefully we will get to see Halilovic take part in some Liga action this week.
Traveling to the Anoeta is a little bit different. While Gijon could challenge for a draw or win with the kind of performance they had against RMD, they will likely be suffering a bit of a hangover from the first match, and I expect Sociedad to get a win here.
Barcelona v. Malaga 8:30
Barcelona was happy to get the three points at San Mames after a very difficult time in the Spanish Super Cup. They were frustrated on many occasions and seemed to lack some sharpness in movement and finishing. Though, later in the game the front line started gelling more chances, but still missed some opportunities. The important part here was that they played great defense, even without star center back Gerard Pique, even after injuries to Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves. Thomas Vermaelen made his first "real" appearance for Barcelona in La Liga and put in a fantastic defensive performance chock-full of strong positioning, good decision making, and some highlight tackles. Sergi Roberto came in for the injured Dani Alves and played like a true Barca wing-back. It was a real sigh of relief for supporters. Barcelona will continue playing shorthanded, as all of Pique, and Dani Alves will be out for this match, and Busquets thought to be recovering in time. Vermaelen and Sergi will go a long way in making up for these losses if they perform at a similar level, but there is the question of who will partner with the Verminator, as Mascherano will likely step out of defense and into the holding mid role. Mathieu returns from suspension and could be available, too. Neymar is still recovering from the mumps and getting back to full fitness, but it seems he will be available and MSN will be back.
Malaga was frustrated with a home draw against Sevilla, though most pundits believe they had a goal wrongly disallowed. This match set the tone of the weekend, as the 0-0 score line was eerily present throughout. I had expected Sevilla to come in and take the game, but Malaga clearly outplayed them, albeit not by a lot, though they could have been expected to think they should have won. They showed a 4-4-2 with attacks coming through every channel. They boasted 57% possession and 80% pass success, but only had five of 25 shots on target and were dominated in the air. With Ignacio Comacho still not available, there shouldn’t be many changes to the side this week.
Malaga is certainly not a pushover, we found that out last season, but even with the thin squad I expect Barcelona to win at the Camp Nou.
Celta v. Rayo 9:00
Celta claimed an away win against likely relegation battler Levante last Sunday. The front line played well together, with Aspas getting a goal and winner on his return to La Liga, and Orellana picking up a MOTM performance with a goal and an assist. Celta essentially dominated the match from beginning to end, with Simao Mate picking up a red card in the 4th minute, though they did have to score late to go ahead. Sergio Alvarez is back from a ban and should start in goal.
Rayo played in another 0-0 match, but this one should have been anything but. Valencia were favorites, but Rayo ‘keeper Tono made two brilliant saves to keep the Madrid-based club in the match. They played their typical short passing and possession game, which they both won, but were not strong in creating chances. Three shots on goal, with most coming from distance, meant that Valencia was not really troubled. Jemez will hope to build on a well-earned draw.
Real Madrid v. Real Betis 10:30
As discussed above, Madrid probably could have done better with the chances they had against Gijon. Rafa opened with an interesting lineup, a variation of his preferred 4-2-3-1 with some twists, notably Isco playing right wing and Jese as the center-forward. We also saw some of the younger players in the backline, with Danilo and Varane getting starts over Carjaval and Pepe. New signing Mateo Kovacic was also given a run out. Modric was given a MOTM performance from whoscored.com, as well. Gijon, back in the Liga, should have grabbed a goal in the first half, but Madrid swarmed in the second half and created a lot of shots, but could not finish, and seemed to be off positionally. This may continue while players get used to the new coach’s system. Benzema will be a game time decision, while Bale should be healthy after a slight knock to the foot. Meanwhile, Fabio Coentrao has moved to Monaco leaving Marcelo as the only natural left back (who is actually a winger). The starting lineup should not change much. Madrid is unbeaten in their last 18 home matches in La Liga.
Betis made a good return to the Liga with a solid draw against Villareal where the two teams played to a stalemate. They likely were looking for a big win at home after a season in the Segunda, but were unable to stymie the relentless Villa squad. They can be happy that they enjoyed a majority of possession (65%) and got off 22 shots. However, Villa was more economical with their possession and got in just as many shots on target. Overall it was a good result for the Sevilla club. Former Real Madrid man Rafael van der Vaart will not be available for a reunion this week.
Real Madrid will get the benefit of playing two former Segunda squads in a row, though they will not have to deal with an intense opening day atmosphere and instead will have the home comforts of the Bernabeu. I expect them to get a win here, and even score a goal or two.
Sunday 30 Aug
Eibar v. Athletic Club 6:30
Tiny Eibar is back again after a year when they should have been relegated. Thankfully for the rest of Liga, their three goals on the day lifted the overall scoring tally for the league above the previous record low. The stats show a very close match, but in the end Eibar just had more go their way. Due to goal differential, they sit in first place, at least for a week.
Athletic almost ran their unbeaten streak to three against Barcelona, but they never truly troubled the Blaugrana, who, while they could not score as freely as they liked, were never truly tested by Bilbao. They played to stop Barca with rough tackling and hard playing, racking up 16 fouls and taking down Busquets and Alves in the process. Coach Ernesto Valverde is still dealing with injuries, particularly those of Inaki and Muniain.
This could be a very tight match and I would expect a low scoring draw. Perhaps a new Basque rivalry will blossom from these matches, which should add some intrigue.
Valencia v. Deportivo 8:30
Valencia could have/should have/would have beat Rayo last week, though Tono’s brilliance in between the sticks was enough to deprive them of two points. However, as they were playing away and had UCL qualifiers in between, it was not the worst result. Also, they officially are in the group stage of the UCL, making it five Spanish sides with a chance this year. In this match, Valencia’s strength was at holding midfielder Javi Fuego and Shkodran "Otamendi Who?" Mustafi, who put in exemplary defensive performances, as they are wont to do (Mustafi made a great tackle as the last man back at one point). The attack should have had two goals and while they will be disappointed they can be hopeful for the rest of the season. Newcomers Santi Mina and Zakaria Bakkali also contributed in the first match, and should be exciting to watch this season, while young center forward Paco Alcacer did not make an appearance. It will be interesting to see how Valencia deals with the added pressures of European competition (they had something close to 20 straight Liga matches to finish the season, a big reason why they were able to finish fourth ahead of a Sevilla squad playing Europa League matches all season). They still may opt to bolster the squad with a late signing if possible. They will likely start the rotations now with the UCL qualifiers, but having Jose Gaya, Dani Parejo, and Feghouli all returning from league bans at the same time should be a huge plus for Valencia.
Deportivo took part in yet another 0-0 match, drawing with La Real last week. In a match that was as low excitement as it sounds, Celso Borges was Deportivo’s standout. The 27 year old defensive midfielder put two shots on goal, distributed nicely, won four out of five aerial duels, won four out of 5 tackles, had two interceptions, and even had a successful dribble. Overall he was by far the most industrious and successful Depor player and will be relied on as the anchor as the season goes along.
Valenica should have too much quality at home for Deportivo, especially since they did well without three of their best players last week, and will look to make up for lost points last weekend. I take Valencia to win by more than one.
Sevilla v. Atletico 8:30
This is most definitely the tastiest match of the weekend, at least on paper. Sevilla has re-upped and reloaded in typical Sevilla fashion, while Atletico has gotten deeper, younger, and pacier. As discussed previously, Sevilla surely should have lost, with Malaga wrongly being denied a goal and Steven N’Zoni collecting a red card in the 68th minute. While Grzegorz Krychowiak did well at center back, it is still a shame that he has to play there. Fortunately Carrico is expected to return this week. Krohn-Dehli and Iborra will compete for the last midfield spot.
Atletico beat lowly Las Palmas, but it was only by one goal in a match that lacked much excitement. It looks like 4-4-2 will be the preferred lineup, with Antoine Griezmann looking very comfortable as a left sided forward, grabbing the only goal of the match. Gabi and Tiago were the midfield anchors while Koke and Oliver Torres pushed forward in the wide areas. Griezmann will be paired with new attack partner Jackson Martinez, which should be a deadly combo once up to full speed. Oliver Torres started as a wide midfielder and put in a very Arda Turan like shift, giving Los Rojiblancos more excitement for the future. Angel Correa took over for him in the 64th minute and showed some sublime skill moves, proving why he is so highly valued. Newcomers Carrasco and Vietto did not make an appearance, and we will see how much they fit into Simeone’s plans as the season goes along. Felipe Luis also looked happy to be back in Madrid, though he may miss this week’s match. Once they start to gel, Atletico should be a very difficult team to beat.
Sevilla, still down some players, should not have an easy time against Atletico, especially in defending the multi-faceted attack they bring. However, playing at home will be a big help. I think that Atletico has more continuity and hunger at the moment and can grab a tough away win or at least a draw.
Getafe v. Granada 10:30
Getafe lost in a match where nothing really happened aside from a very well taken free kick by Salva Sevilla. Otherwise there is not much to report from their first match, except that Santiago Vergini will not be available after picking up two yellows. Roberto Lago is also suspended, while Yoda will miss the match due to injury. Alvaro Medran came off the bench with a strong performance, so he may get a chance to start this one.
Granada looks to be a prime relegation candidate, starting off the season by losing at home to tiny Eibar. Salva Ruiz picked up a red, which did not help the cause, and will prevent him from playing on Sunday. Otherwise they were not totally dreadful, as Eibar saw most of the luck go their way, while Granada self-imploded in the second half. David Lomban will return from suspension and should start in defense. Former Barcelona man Ruben Rochina scored the only goal for Granada, putting in a MOTM performance playing behind the striker.
Getafe has lost their last four home games, but I see them breaking the trend this weekend.
Las Palmas v. Levante 10:30
Las Palmas put in a spirited effort against Atletico, although they were severely overmatched. The five man back line will probably give way to a more attacking formation this week, as Levante does not present similar problems as Atletico. Of note, Las Palmas had not played in Liga since 2002, and in coming up to the premier flight kept most of the players who go them there. This seems to be a nice trend with the newly promoted sides, as none of them made dramatic roster overhauls in preparation for La Liga, but stuck with continuity. Cordoba had an abhorrent season last year in trying to restock their roster with more "first tier" players, so maybe this is just a reaction.
Levante lost to Celta, but were almost done before they started due to a very quick (5th minute) and questionable red card on Simao. Midfielder Verza stood out, as his splendid free kick gave Levante a chance to come back. Levante’s back line is still the most talented part of the squad, and they should look to frustrate Las Palmas here.
That’s it from me. Let’s hope to more excitement, more goals, and most importantly, a Blaugrana win. Visca El Barca! Visca L’Espectacle!