Reigning champions Barcelona opened their La Liga campaign with a 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao in stunning circumstances on Friday night.
Barca were second-best in the first half and needed a trio of saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but also hit the woodwork twice through Luis Suarez – who then departed through injury – and his replacement Rafinha.
The second half was a cagier affair with few clear chances at either end, and the game appeared to be heading harmlessly towards a goalless draw until, with two minutes left, a piece of magic happened…and that’s the only way to start our review of the action.
Aduriz gives La Liga a flying start
After two seasons of Barcelona waltzing to the title by March, this was exactly the result neutrals needed to give the new campaign a flying start and spark hope that this season’s title race will be far more competitive.
And the nature of the winning goal could not have been more romantic or dramatic, as Athletic legend Aritz Aduriz came off the bench and, with his very first touch, rifled home a stunning overhead volley from close to the edge of the box to give Marc-Andre ter Stegen no chance.
It was a genuine contender for goal of the season on the very first day of the season, made even more remarkable for the fact that Aduriz is 38 years old and is far better known for powerful headers than flying acrobatics.
The Athletic legend, who is entering into his 11th campaign with the club over two separate spells, has already announced that he will retire at the end of the season and he will probably only play a bit-part role from the bench in the coming months. But even if he does nothing else before retiring, this moment of sheer brilliance is enough to ensure he will never be forgotten by Athletic fans – and it will also have been celebrated wildly by supporters of Real and Atletico Madrid. The title race is on!
Midfield conundrum for Valverde
The teamsheets contained a surprise with Barca boss Ernesto Valverde leaving stalwart midfielders Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic on the bench, instead selecting Sergi Roberto and Carles Alena to play alongside new signing Frenkie De Jong.
With Busquets and Rakitic both in their 30s, that selection was a look to the future and perhaps an indication of how Valverde would like his team to evolve over the coming campaign, but it was not a successful move and the Barca coach quickly abandoned the new policy with the half-time introduction of Rakitic in place of Alena.
The visitors were much more comfortable after the break, with Rakitic sitting deeper, next to De Jong, and helping his team dictate play. In fact, the team shape was a clear 4-2-3-1, with Rakitic and De Jong forming a double-pivot, impressive sub Rafinha on the right of attack, Ousmane Dembele on the left and Sergi Roberto through the middle in support of Antoine Griezmann.
And although the personnel will greatly change in due course, perhaps that is the formation Valverde is planning to become his template this season: Lionel Messi supporting Luis Suarez in the middle, Griezmann on the right and, on the left…a certain Neymar?
Suarez and Messi sidelined for must-win contest?
Barca’s opening day loss will certainly unload a barrage of criticism upon Valverde, who has been left with very little credit in the bank after his team’s consecutive Champions League collapses in the last two seasons.
Following the debacle at Anfield in May, it was inevitable that Valverde would come under the hammer as soon as his team suffered a setback in the new campaign. Worryingly for the Barca boss, not only has that time has come at the very start of the season, but it has also coincided with the absence of his two key attacking players, Messi and Suarez.
The former was absent from kick-off, left back in Barcelona after suffering a calf injury in training a couple of weeks ago. And Suarez joined him on the sidelines before the break, also suffering a calf injury which will be fully assessed on Saturday.
There is, then, a real chance that Valverde will be without both Messi and Suarez for a game which has become an absolute must-win encounter: next Sunday’s home meeting with Real Betis. A narrow slip-up in a tough road encounter will be swiftly forgotten if it is followed by a resounding home win, but it would leave Valverde under enormous pressure if points are dropped against Betis next weekend.
Messi, surely, will do everything to get back in time for the game. And Valverde will need him more than ever.
Aritz Aduriz was the hero for Athletic Bilbao, netting an 88th minute winner to down reigning champions Barcelona on Friday night.
It was just about a merited victory for the home team, who dominated the first half and defended well in the second, with Barca creating very few clear chances.
Here is how all the players rated.
Simon 8. Produced a sensational stop to tip Rafinha’s shot onto the bar and was solid whenever called upon.
Capa 8. Made some storming runs down the right, and kept going to the end to deliver the cross for the winner.
Yeray 8. Read the game perfectly to break up several attacks, marshalling the home defence with quiet and calm authority.
Nunez 7. Deputy centre back did a great job, defending with determination and concentration to keep Barça at bay.
Yuri 8. Worked hard defensively and showed plenty of attacking intent, including a great through ball for Williams.
D Garcia 7. Kept it simple and effective in front of the back four, showing no attacking ambition but supporting his defence.
Lopez 7. Showed poise in the centre of the pitch, catching the eye barring a terrible back pass. Tired after the break.
De Marcos 6. Worked hard down the right flank but made little impression and was replaced midway through the second half.
R Garcia 6. Typically combative, to put it politely, using his guile and experience to make life difficult for the visitors.
Muniain 6. Athletic’s captain couldn’t impose himself on the ball but worked tirelessly in his defensive duties.
Williams 7. A major threat in the first half, twice coming close in the first 15 minutes, but less effective in the second half.
Sancet 5. Highly rated teen came on to boost the attack but wasn‘t able to get going, looking nervous and daunted.
Benat 6. Veteran midfielder introduced for the final ten minutes and helped his team contain Barça in the latter stages.
Aduriz 9. The old man of La Liga came on in the latter stages and scored a sensational overhead volleyed winner within seconds.
Ter Stegen 7. Made a great flying stop to deny Williams and was sure in his handling, but had no chance for the goal.
Semedo 5. Looked vulnerable defensively and although he kept plugging away going forward, he posed little threat.
Pique 5. Struggled to contain the pace and movement of Williams, often dropping deep and leaving space to be attacked.
Lenglet 6. Nearly grabbed a leveller with an injury time header and defended with efficiency despite struggling for pace against Williams.
Alba 5. Sloppy in the opening stages and although he improved in the second half he was lacking precision throughout.
Roberto 6. Selected in midfield but the game largely passed him by, and he was taken off with 15 minutes left.
De Jong 6. Played in the pivot role in deep midfield and was kept quiet in the first half, but much better after the break.
Alena 5. A surprise starter but he didn’t get into the rhythm of the game and was replaced at half-time.
Dembele 6. Floated in and out of the action, swapping flanks after Suarez’s injury. Much more dangerous after the break.
Suarez 6. Little involvement until he seized on a poor backpass to hit the post but was then forced off injured.
Griezmann 5. Started on the left before moving centrally after Suarez’s injury, and was starved of service in a quiet debut.
Rafinha 8. Replace Suarez and nearly netted with a brilliant strike against the bar, also twice coming close in the second half.
Rakitic 7. Came on at half-time and immediately helped his team restore order in midfield. Fired a good chance too high.
Perez 6. Rewarded for a bright preseason with a brief run-out, but he couldn’t make headway down the right.
After a difficult preseason, Real Madrid kick off their La Liga campaign with a trip to take on last season’s strugglers Celta Vigo on Saturday evening.
Manager Zinedine Zidane is heading into the encounter surrounded by doubts after struggling to get the team back on track since his reappointment in March, and the next couple of weeks will be dominated by talk of the transfer market as the French coach seeks to strengthen his squad.
For now, though, Zidane will have to settle for the group of players he has, and he has been dealt a big blow ahead of Saturday’s trip to Vigo with the loss of summer signing Eden Hazard through injury. The question of how he will deal with that absence kicks off our key talking points ahead of the game.
Will football finally overshadow speculation?
Rarely can Real Madrid have headed into a new season with the focus so firmly fixed upon players who do not belong to the club. But that’s certainly the case right now, with Zidane facing extensive questioning over potential moves for Neymar and Paul Pogba during his pregame press conference on Friday.
Zidane’s preparations have also been distracted by his unsuccessful attempts to offload three unwanted stars, and the French coach is frustrated to be heading into the campaign with Gareth Bale, Mariano Diaz and James Rodriguez still at his disposal.
Now, though, the talking stops, the football starts and the big question is whether Zidane’s troops are actually ready to play. Considering the uncertainty over the eventual composition of the squad and a series of poor performances in preseason, it’s fair to say Madrid are looking in less than great shape, and Saturday’s trip to Vigo certainly cannot be taken lightly – especially after Hazard was ruled out with a hamstring injury sustained in training on Friday.
Hazard was set to line up in a central position in support of Karim Benzema, but Zidane will now have to find somebody else for that spot and the most likely candidates are Isco and Vinicius Junior. There could also be a shock inclusion for James or Bale, with at least one of them probable for the bench, so Real Madrid’s fractious summer could well take a few more twists and turns.
Three at the back?
Along with the transfer market soap opera, the most notable aspect of Madrid’s final preseason games was Zidane’s decision to line up with a 3-5-2 formation, a tactical approach he has hardly ever used in the past.
The three-man backline was no more than partially successful, with a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Red Bull Salzburg followed by an unconvincing defensive performance in a 2-2 draw against Roma. So Zidane now has to decide whether to continue the experiment in the serious business of La Liga, which would probably entail a debut for summer signing Eder Militao, or revert to a more accustomed back four with skipper Sergio Ramos partnering Raphael Varane in the heart of defence.
Regardless of the formation chosen, Marcelo is set to start at either left-back or wingback. After being overlooked for much of last season, the experienced Brazilian has been handed a reprieve and returned to starter status with the decision to loan youngster Sergio Reguilon to Sevilla. But he will soon face competition from currently-injured new signing Ferland Mendy, and Marcelo will very much be under the microscope in the opening weeks of the season.
Celta set for improved season?
Celta endured a very poor 2018/19, only just managing to avoid relegation on the final day after a turbulent season which saw them – just like visiting Madrid – led by three different managers.
But with experienced coach Fran Escriba now preparing for a full campaign after doing well to keep the team up following his appointment in March, the Galician club have high hopes they will be a much stronger force this time around.
As ever, much of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of iconic forward Iago Aspas, whose lengthy injury absence coincided precisely with the team’s slump in form last season. The Spain international has a new strike partner with former youth product Santi Mina arriving from Valencia as Maxi Gomez headed in the opposite direction, but Mina will miss this season opener through injury.
Another returnee prompting much expectation among Celta fans is creative midfielder Denis Suarez, who is aiming to kickstart his career following a frustrating couple of seasons with Barcelona. Celta’s biggest weakness last season, however, was at the other end of the field: they conceded 62 goals, the fourth-worst in La Liga, and Escriba’s preseason work was focussed on tightening up at the back. Taking on the attacking might of Madrid, notwithstanding the absence of Hazard and uncertainty over others, will be a stern early test.