The results from the first matchday of the 2019/20 La Liga season were even more important for Real Madrid than initially perceived.
Barcelona slumped to their first opening day defeat in 11 years after a late acrobatic goal from Athletic Bilbao legend Aritz Aduriz caused San Mames to erupt. A day later, Los Blancos cruised to a comfortable 3-1 win over Celta Vigo despite star signing Eden Hazard missing due to injury and Luka Modric being sent off during the game.
Madrid thus finished a La Liga matchday above rivals Barcelona for the first time in 818 days.
The last time they finished above Barcelona was on the last matchday of the 2016/17 season when they clinched the title. Between the two dates, the Blaugrana have won two league titles, one Copa del Rey and Los Blancos have won the Champions League twice.
Madrid have had three managerial changes during this period, with Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari enduring short and forgettable stints before Zinedine Zidane returned to coach the side. On the other hand, Barcelona have changed their boss just once, with Luis Enrique making way for Ernesto Valverde.
The capital side endured several nightmares in El Clasicos that were played in the same period. Barcelona accumulated 10 out of a possible 12 points in four games and maintained an impressive aggregate of 11-4. Additionally, the Catalans also knocked their rivals out of the Copa del Rey once before succumbing to Valencia in the finals.
The last time Madrid finished above Barcelona on the opening day was back in the 2007/08 season and they went on to win the title. This result should therefore be a massive morale-booster for Los Blancos, who have fast-tracked their rebuild having spent 300m euros this summer.
On paper, it’s merely three points but psychologically it could go a long way in convincing Madrid that they could break their rivals’ stranglehold on La Liga this season.
A revolving door in perpetual motion.
This has been the bold approach utilised by Atletico Madrid in the summer’s transfer market. Of 2018/19’s first-choice XI, less than half will be present for Sunday’s La Liga opener against over-achieving neighbours Getafe.
Real Madrid’s vaunted reset under Zinedine Zidane has been – admittedly, to the Frenchman’s chagrin – nowhere near as thorough. The prospect of Neymar’s comeback looms over La Liga champions Barcelona’s business, which, to date, is led by just Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong and ex-Atleti forward Antoine Griezmann.
Tumult and titles rarely coexist in football. This assertion should spell doom for Los Rojiblancos hopes of a first top-flight crown since 2013/14.
Yet the consistency and clarity of vision by the club’s decision makers shines through, even at such startling volume. Characteristics that cannot be so aptly applied to El Clasico rivals.
It is why belief in tangible success is burgeoning at Wanda Metropolitano, not waning.
The triumvirate of head coach Diego Simeone, sporting director Andrea Berta and CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin have overseen a €261 million recruitment drive. Some reaction to March’s Champions League capitulation at Juventus that spelled the definitive end of an indefatigable era.
The figure will balloon past the €300m mark if a stalled deal for Valencia and Spain forward Rodrigo stutters back into life before September 2’s deadline.
The exhaustively re-cast squad is now defined by the likes of emergent €126m Portugal talent Joao Felix, rising Spain centre-back Mario Hermoso, England’s World Cup 2018 right-back Kieran Trippier and Porto freebie Hector Herrera.
The Los Rojiblancos hierarchy, however, are not spendthrifts. This unprecedented spree on nine additions has been paid for by substantial sales of €307.5m.
France pair Antoine Griezmann and Lucas Hernandez went for a combined €200m, while Manchester City’s matching of emerging Spain anchor man Rodri’s release clause made an unwelcome exit inevitable. Also gone are beloved free agents Diego Godin and Juanfran – veterans of multiple Champions League and Europa League finals.
This churn is, superficially, redolent of the chaos inherent to Spanish top flight’s financially starved lower reaches. It certainly stands in contrast to Clasico kings Madrid and Barcelona, who at the time of writing look to have each purchased four guaranteed first-team-ready footballers each.
But Atleti have been methodical – and methodological – at every turn. This cannot be said for the aforementioned enriched duo.
Trippier is a visionary substitution for Juanfran, while Atletico Paranaense’s 21-year-old left-back Renan Lodi comes in for fellow Brazilian Filipe Luis. Porto’s Felipe and Espanyol’s Hermoso fill the gaps at centre-back left by the Hernandez and the lionised Godin, while both Herrera and Madrid’s Marcos Llorente step in for Rodri.
This summer’s enduring legacy, however, could come in the fortunes of Griezmann and enlivening replacement Felix.
The teen idol’s iridescent pre-season form has included goals against Madrid, Juventus and MLS All-Stars. At 19-years old, a staggering rise that began in earnest last October at Benfica shows no signs of abating.
An anonymous Griezmann’s contribution to Barca’s eyebrow-raising 1-0 La Liga defeat at Athletic Bilbao was three off-target attempts, one key pass and just 33 touches. The 28-year-old’s 15 goals in 2018/19 was his worst top-flight output since 2012/13, with Real Sociedad.
Barca’s complications do not end there.
The horse-trading about Neymar looked to have disturbed fragile France winger Ousmane Dembele at San Mames. He’s now either an interchangeable commodity with Paris Saint-Germain, or set for an unwanted spell on the sidelines.
The same uncertainty impacts Portugal right-back Nelson Semedo and Croatia centre midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
This is all without discussing the continuing disquiet that surrounds head coach Ernesto Valverde.
Plentiful unease can further be detected at Santiago Bernabeu.
March’s return of Zidane – a winner of nine major trophies from January 2016-May 2018 – was caveated on extensive alterations to the roster.
With a fortnight left in the transfer market, however, expensive deadwood such as Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez and maligned Wales forward Gareth Bale remain.
A failure to prise France’s Paul Pogba from Manchester United has denied the flimsy centre midfield of a necessary power surge. Their already abysmal pre-season – two wins from seven friendlies, with 18 goals conceded – plunged new depths before Saturday’s La Liga clash at Celta Vigo when news broke that new €100m Belgium winger Eden Hazard had picked up a thigh injury in training.
Atletico’s ambitious plans are not without issue. Initial teething problems when the competitive actions gets under way are, surely, assured. But coherence – not shared by their greatest rivals – defines a sage succession plan.
Simeone’s latest conscripts are ready for action.
Griezmann joined Barca from Atletico Madrid for 120 million euros over the summer and was handed his debut at San Mames on Friday.
However, he struggled to make an impact on the left of a front three in the first half and did not fare much better when an injury to Luis Suarez saw him shifted into a more central role.
“If he is close to the box he can finish, he moves well, but you have to dominate the game for that to happen,” Valverde said in quotes reported by Sport.
“Putting him on the left, we knew that he will look for goal, but we have a left-back and players who can take the game.
“(However), we expect a lot from all the players and he has to look to get in the game more.”
Barca were without star man Lionel Messi, who is recovering from a calf injury.
“We’re not all like him and we have to learn to cope when he’s not there,” Valverde continued. “It’s inevitable to miss him, but we need to do other things too. We have to transform possession into goal chances, that’s what counts.”
On the injury to Suarez, who hit the woodwork with Barca’s best chance before being forced off late in the first half, Valverde added: “Luis has a problem with the calf and his injury set us back because in the second half we spent a lot of time in Athletic’s box and lacked finishers there.”
Bilbao’s winner came courtesy of a spectacular overhead kick from 38-year-old Aritz Aduriz in the 89th minute, with the veteran forward – who will retire at the end of the season – having only been on the field for a minute.
“Everything in life has a start and a finish,” he said of his impending retirement, as quoted by AS. “I’m grateful to be able to choose to end things where I’m happiest.
“(The goal) is dedicated to my family and everyone who supports me. These kind of things make football so beautiful.”
Provided by Press Association Sport