It’s probably too early in the season to say forget what you thought you knew about La Liga, but man, what a weekend in Spain. And if now isn’t a good time for a knee-jerk reaction or two, then when is??
First, preseason runaway favorite Barcelona fails to score without Lionel Messi and loses at Athletic Bilbao 1-0 on Friday.
Then, Real Madrid enjoys what seems like its first drama-free afternoon in an eternity, blowing out Celta Vigo 3-1 on Saturday.
On Sunday, João Félix shows in one ultimately fruitless run down the right side of the pitch what the buzz is about. New-look Atletico Madrid wins 1-0, but maybe Los Rojiblancos aren’t as “new-look” as we think.
We’ll get to Barcelona’s shocking loss and our first look at Atleti after their summer overhaul, but we have to start with Los Blancos.
Real Madrid, as it turns out, still has a few quality pieces
I maintain that the hand-wringing about this team’s ’18-19 season and tumultuous (despite several quality signings) offseason was justified. But that’s not the point right now.
After a summer his club spent trying to move him, Gareth Bale quickly reminded us that when on the field, healthy and engaged, he’s a huge asset. He assisted Karim Benzema in the 12th for his team’s first goal of the season. His place in the starting lineup and strong performance – WhoScored gave him a 7.84 for his 75 minutes – make you wonder if all of a sudden, things between him and Zinedine Zidane are copacetic??
Anyone who hasn’t seen Toni Kroos’ long-distance strike in the 61st to make it 2-0 missed a beauty.
His stunner, along with what we saw from Bale and Benzema, bring me to something we might be repeating throughout the upcoming season: RM was a team full of historically good players who did not play well a year ago. There’s a big difference between having talent and underachieving and simply lacking top players. Fortunately for Madridistas, their case clearly falls into the former category, as evidenced by them leading 3-0 until an extra time goal by Celta Vigo. By winning that comfortably despite playing with 10 men for a significant stretch – Luka Modric was sent off in the 56thh – Real Madrid sent a message.
We’ll close the RM portion of this piece with a reminder that Celta Vigo finished last season in 17th place in La Liga and is not expected to be a contender this season either.
Is Barcelona in trouble?
The logical reaction to the Catalans’ season-opening loss would be to shrug it off as a fluke result directly related to Lionel Messi’s absence due to a calf injury. But this team has too many weapons to be shut out, regardless of who’s available.
Speaking of availability, by late Monday, we’d learned that Ousmane Dembélé will be out a month or more with a hamstring injury. Is the talented Frenchman ever going to be fit enough to stay on the field? He’s still young, but it’s already a question worth asking.
Luis Suárez, who came off before halftime, is likely out until after the September international break with a calf issue of his own.
Messi (who could play this weekend) plus Antoine Griezmann plus whoever joins them up top is not exactly a limited trio. But the season is one game old, and three of the Catalans’ top four players are already dealing with health issues. It’s (way, way) too early to doubt this team, but Ernesto Valverde must be concerned that injuries are a legit topic of conversation this early on.
One player who won’t be the answer if Barcelona’s top options are unavailable for long is Philippe Coutinho, whose ill-fated move to Catalonia ended (for now) with his loan to Bayern Munich.
Before moving on, a little love for the team that beat Barcelona on Friday. Check out the game-winner by Athletic Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz in the 91st. Not a bad bicycle kick for a 38 (!)-year-old who came on as a sub in the game’s waning minutes. (The highlight starts at around :39).
João Félix shines for Atlético Madrid
On the surface, Atlético winning 1-0 over defensive-minded Getafe was about as predictable and unremarkable as any result in Europe this weekend.
But if one game, and one run in particular, was any indication, Atleti is must-see TV thanks to their 19-year-old Portuguese phenom. Hopefully, the next penalty he draws will end up in the back of the net (Álvaro Morata missed the PK that was awarded on this one).
🔥Joao Felix lit up his @atletienglish debut with a run reminiscent of a certain @LaLigaEN legend 👀@gary_bailey1, @KaylynKyle & @TRongen break down biggest moments from Atleti’s win in today’s Coach’s Corner.— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) August 18, 2019
🎥 Full video: https://t.co/m0aMrBfXrH pic.twitter.com/vNh6Va4aeG
We see a couple things here. First of all, holy shit, what speed, control, etc. Also, as if we didn’t know this already, this kid is going to get roughed up as the season rolls along. It might already be foolish to question whether he’s talented enough to make an impact right away. It will be interesting, however, to see how he holds up against the physical pounding he’ll continue to absorb from frustrated defenders.
One other takeaway from Atleti’s win: Yes, this team appears more capable than ever of winning an open, high-scoring battle. But if Diego Simeone‘s club goes up 1-0, it’s more than happy to rely on its defense the rest of the way, which appears stout again. Getafe did not register one shot on target on Sunday.