Liga Fever decided to wait until late Monday night to write the opening weekend round-up, but as I caress the keys there is still a game going on (Athletic v Leganés), the likes of which will finish the four-day marathon sometime around midnight, but I’ll keep an eye on the score.
Well it’s holiday time, and despite my genetic condition of Englishness, summer is now affecting me in the same way as it does all Spaniards. August is a sacred period, and although there is nothing in Genesis about it being a month of rest, you can’t get a plumber for love nor money – because they’re all on holiday in Benidorm. And don’t get ill, because the doctors are all in Marbella. Nevertheless, it is rather good for just watching loads of footy and that’s exactly what I did, as a huge personal sacrifice for the massed ranks of Liga Fever readers.
The Friday night Girona-Valladolid opener was a bit of a disappointment (0-0) so I skipped it to take in some of the Betis v Levante fare that followed, expecting to see the home side get off to the rousing start that everyone was expecting of them. Well, they played ok, but Levante, for whom few had given a fig this season (another team who’ve changed their squad substantially over summer) ran out 0-3 winners in the surprise result of the opening programme, and deserved it too. José Luis Morales, Levante stalwart and captain, scored a fantastic second goal, one of several corkers over the four days. He got slightly lucky when a defender pushed the ball into his path, but the way he cut inside the last defender, leaving him legs akimbo, to then strike the ball with such confidence with the outside of his boot, makes you wonder why no bigger clubs ever considered him.
By the way – the Spanish have several words for ‘great goal’, the most boring of which is ‘golazo’ (big goal). When Rodrigo equalised for Valencia on Monday night against Atlético, my son defined the goal as ‘qué chicharro!’ which means ‘What a horse-mackerel!’ – which is a fish, in case you didn’t know. I’m not sure of the etymology behind this, but most of Spain says it. So, as I said, there were plenty of horse-mackerels swimming around on the opening weekend.
Maybe Betis froze in the glare of the expectation that’s been rumbling around them all summer, but they’ll be fine once Canales and Inui have settled in. Opening-day games have a tendency to throw up unexpected results, for all the variables that are in play, the most obvious of which being that new squads take time to settle. Levante played to their strengths (using last season’s double block of four), snuffed out Betis in the last third, and counter-attacked with brutal efficiency. No need to ring the alarm bells or to suddenly analyse Levante’s Champions League credentials.
Celta’s home draw with Espanyol was another slightly surprising result, given the doom-laden predictions for the latter by most of Spain’s footy journalists before the games got under way. But again, Celta are notoriously slow starters and were subject to the new system of their new coach ‘El Turco’ Antonio Mohamed , who’s actually from Argentina (not Turkey) and who has coached thirteen different sides in the last fifteen seasons, but anyway, Celta will have their reasons. He’s on a two-year contract, so just as well. Espanyol have a new man too, namely Rubi, the guy who was 2nd to Tito Vilanova at Barça in 2013, but who is best known for promoting Huesca last season to the top flight. Why on earth he decided to leave them in the summer and take over at Espanyol is anyone’s guess, but hey, he is Catalan. Maybe it’s a bit cold in Huesca in the winter.
Talking of which, the real ‘partidazo’ (big match) of the weekend was on Sunday at tea-time, between Eibar and the aforementioned Huesca. Huesca’s presence in the top flight is nothing short of amazing, but it seems as though there’s a bit of ‘minnow fatigue’ around now, after all the articles and words previously written about Eibar. Europe’s journalists just haven’t quite been able to muster enough energy to descend on the side, maybe because they reside in what the Spanish call the ‘quinto pino’ (‘the 5th pinetree’, aka the middle of nowhere). That said, the Guardian sent Sid Lowe up from Madrid to report on the game in the now better-known 4th-pine at Eibar, just down the road from my Basque abode.
It would therefore have been much cheaper to have sent me, but I was actually on the beach and missed the game. With the Guardian’s freelance budget being a bit non-existent these days, I wasn’t hoping for any call. No worries – we’ll sell Liga Fever to them, but only for a good price. Huesca won the game too (1-2) with an excellent first goal from Alex Gallár, up to this season best known as a decent mucker in the low divisions.
Huesca look to me as though they might be the best of the three promoted sides (Huesca, Valladolid and Rayo) and teams won’t look forward to visiting them on a Friday/Monday night, up there in the wilds of Aragón. The population is 52,000, which doubles that of Eibar, but it’s still a fairy-tale. They’d been knocking at the door for two seasons, so it’s not as if they’re entirely unprepared for the rigours of the top flight. A slight problem for them is that their first three games must be played away, because of the obligatory modifications being made to their Alcoraz ground. So next week they return to the Basque Country to San Mames, and then travel to the Camp Nou, which should be interesting. Perhaps by that time, we’ll be able to gauge their possibilities more accurately.
Santi Cazorla returned for Villarreal too, after a couple of years in dry dock during which he thought he might never play again. The fact that Real Sociedad (1-2) pooped his return party was, I’m afraid, a cause for celebration for this scribe, and of course I watched the entire game on the telly. Sociedad took their chances, which were basically handed to them on a plate, but their new coach Garitano (ex-Leganés) is turning them into a more efficient machine than last season, when Eusebio’s good intentions produced attractive football, lots of goals, but lots of defeats too. Garitano is more a ‘horses for courses’ coach, who states that he believes ‘in players, not systems’. Totally agree. He’s rented a flat about 50 metres from me, so I might try to rope him in for an exclusive if I bump into him on the way to the beach. Watch this space.
Iker Muniain’s just scored for Athletic, at 23.50 as I write. They’ll be happy then. It’s finished 2-1, and the first ‘jornada’ is complete.
You want a mention of the big boys? Ok then – I watched Real Madrid v Getafe (2-0), with the lowest attendance since 2009 (48,000) announced as if it were a tragedy, but everyone’s on holiday. I told you – it’s all those plumbers. The tabloid ‘Marca’ bizarrely led its Sunday edition with a picture of Ronaldo playing for Juve, the paper’s behaviour resembling that of a grown child who is yet to assimilate the death of a parent, and who leaves a memento on the mantelpiece – a watch, a necklace, a faded photograph. ‘Marca’ will eventually move on, but only after a chat with the local priest.
Meanwhile, Madrid cantered to a fairly comfy win, but only by virtue of Getafe’s defensive errors. Few conclusions can be drawn, although it was good to see Ceballos getting a run-out (he did fine) which nevertheless obscures the fact that Madrid have no natural replacement for Casemiro (who came on later). Are we therefore talking two systems this season – one for when the Brazilian is fit and another for when he’s injured/resting? The problem seems to reside in the radical differences between those two systems. Ronaldo’s departure has allegedly ushered in the new dawn of a more ‘collective’ Madrid side, but that remains to be seen.
Gareth Bale has, according to the next day’s Marca headline, assumed the ‘baton’ in a sort of ersatz captaincy/leader role, but one wonders what exactly he was supposed to have been doing for the last five seasons. I would do two things with Bale. I’d send him to Spanish lessons (again), or get my money back from his previous teachers, and then I’d employ an army of doctors to keep him fit. As my esteemed colleague Ed Alvarez whatsapped me from the Bernabow on Sunday, ‘I’m dreading the moment Bale stays on the ground for too long’. Exactly.
Barça eventually got past the Alavés bus and won 3-0, with a couple of cheeky ones from Messi to kick off the season, and Valencia v Atlético (1-1) on Monday night was an interesting insight into how well both sides will do this season, and the news is good. Atlético were too smart in the first half, and doused the host’s flames with a typically rugged and disciplined performance, but Valencia always looked keen, and their equaliser was a real horse mackerel, scored by a Rodrigo who’d been looking keen all night.
Atlético have passed the test of a tough start (Real Madrid then Valencia) and host neighbours Rayo next week, who got a bit of a shock on their return to the top flight, losing 1-4 at home to a swaggering Sevilla. Watch out for Valencia though, especially if they can prise Mata away from Man United and Guedes from PSG.
All to play for. One down, thirty-seven to go.