La Liga Matchday 02 Preview: Can Messi-less Barcelona Roll Again?

Written By Tyler Everett on August 19, 2021

The opening weekend in La Liga offered little drama at the top of the table, as last year’s top four – Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla – all captured three points.

In fact, only reigning champ Atleti faced much resistance, as Diego Simeone’s team got a 2-1 win over Celta Vigo that saw two players sent off in the 95th minute.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla, on the other hand, won their matches by a combined score of 11-3 (!). This weekend, it seems unlikely that we’ll see quite such one-sided results. Below is a look at what’s on tap for Spain’s best:

  • Athletic Club (+320) vs. Barcelona (-115), Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern
  • Atletico Madrid (-500) vs. Elche (+1,600) Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
  • Levante (+425) vs. Real Madrid (-165) Sunday, 4 p.m.
  • Getafe (+250) vs. Sevilla (+125) Monday, 2 p.m.

According to oddsmakers, the Madrid clubs are unlikely to struggle, especially Atleti. But it’s a different story, potentially, for Barcelona and Sevilla, which are on the road against tough teams.

I think Sevilla will maybe definitely have to endure some brutal physicality against Getafe, but I recommend them at +125 after that 3-0 win over Rayo Vallecano to start the season. I also like Under 2.5 Goals (-110) in Atleti-Elche.

Can Athletic Club Upset Barcelona, Again?

Forgive me for rehashing, but a lot of fans outside Spain probably see “Athletic Club” and assume Barcelona will have it easy. The Basque side is no pushover, though. It upset Barcelona during the ’19-20 season and again last January, in the Supercopa final, a match that included a rare red card for Lionel Messi. Barcelona got its revenge in April, drubbing Athletic 4-0 in the Copa del Rey final, but this has rivalry hasn’t been all Barcelona in recent years.

As for this weekend, Barcelona is (obviously) the more talented team, even without Messi. The question is whether Marcelino has overseen enough offseason improvement to make Athletic Club a viable threat to A) finish top-4 and B) beat Barcelona when the Catalans are in form. I don’t think B is true, but if Barcelona aren’t on point, they’re going to suffer yet another upset this weekend.

Barcelona … not skipping a beat??

Ronald Koeman’s team could hardly have asked for a better first game without Messi. Against a solid Real Sociedad opponent that finished in fifth place a year ago, the Catalans jumped out to a 3-0 lead. In addition to solid Barcelona debuts by center back Eric Garcia and forward Memphis Depay, Barcelona enjoyed the performance of Martin Braithwaite’s life, as the Dane scored two goals and added an assist.

For one match, Antoine Griezmann showed signs he might be a much better player in Messi’s absence. His failure to ever truly get into a groove alongside the Argentine might have been attributable to a bad fit, not a loss of his ability. Time will tell on that (I realize that’s a massive understatement), but after one game, maybe Braithwaite-Depay-Griezmann is a better attacking trio than we’d have ever thought.

The really good news for Barcelona is that they played that well without the services of several key pieces – and I don’t mean Philippe Coutinho. Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Ansu Fati were both out last weekend (but are expected to return soon). If this team is winning comfortably without them, there might be a good reason they’re second-favorite to win La Liga (+240).

Why is Real Madrid +120 to win La Liga?

Speaking of futures odds, let’s get into them!

Right now, the favorite is a Real Madrid team, at +120, that I actually like less than either of the teams behind it.

No love for Atleti

Atlético “nobody respects us” Madrid has a good gripe right now, as they’re +250 despite having a much better summer than either of their rivals. Quick, name a good player that Atleti lost this summer. … And, oh yea, they won the damn league last year. More importantly, Atleti is great value at that price.

While I think Barcelona is also tempting at +240, if you can only put money on one of these teams, Atleti at +250 is the move.

Plenty of questions for Real Madrid

Real Madrid lost two pillars of its back line in Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane over the summer. Though David Alaba and Eder Militao should fill those holes to some extent (assuming Alaba plays center back after starting the season at left back), you can’t tell me the Real Madrid defense is better without Ramos and Varane. This team will miss Zinedine Zidane, too.

I also don’t see how the Real Madrid offense takes a big step forward unless Eden Hazard discovers his old form. While Hazard, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have plenty of pedigree up top, a full, healthy season form Hazard or Bale – God forbid both – seems out of the realm of possibility. If, for some strange reason, two players whose best days are well behind them struggle, we’re talking about a team that will once again be entirely too dependent on Karim Benzema.

And I’ll say this only once this season, because I expected drop-offs last year and they never materialized, but Real Madrid is going to need a ton of production, and injury luck, from a 33-year-old (Benzema), a 35-year-old (Luka Modric) and a 31-year-old (Toni Kroos). It just seems like too much to ask to expect huge seasons from all three, no matter how ageless they looked throughout the ’20-21 campaign.


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