Spain’s La Liga returns Sans big two

Spain’s La Liga returns Sans big two

MADRID • After a brief yet turbulent close season marked by the attempted departure of Lionel Messi, little transfer activity and the renewed threat of the coronavirus in Spain, La Liga returns today amid a fixture list chaos and a decidedly gloomy outlook.

The league was forced to change the days of its fixtures for the opening weekend, announcing on Wednesday night it had given in to the “nonsense” of the Spanish Football Federation, to avoid “irreparable sporting damage to the clubs”.

The season’s original curtain-raiser between Granada and Athletic Bilbao, initially scheduled for yesterday, will be played today. And Alaves against Real Betis on Monday has been brought forward to tomorrow. The first game of the season will instead be Eibar against Celta Vigo at Ipurua.

Fans are not expected to return to Spanish stadiums until next year at the earliest as Covid-19 infection rates continue to rise across the country, depriving La Liga of the noise and colour for which it is renowned.

There is also a subdued feeling as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are among six teams missing the first weekend having finished last season late, with the latter three sides also missing the second weekend.

The financial impact of the pandemic, meanwhile, is being keenly felt across the league, afflicting even the wealthiest clubs.

Champions Real Madrid, who usually spend their summers parading big-money signings at glitzy presentation ceremonies, are not expected to bring in anyone new. Instead, they are recalling loanees such as Martin Odegaard while clearing out players surplus to requirements.

Still, Zinedine Zidane’s side are the favourites to lift the title after last season’s relentless run of 10 straight victories and the turmoil at arch-rivals Barcelona.

Barca may have clung on to Messi after a two-week saga but are still in deep trouble on many a sporting, institutional and financial level.

President Josep Maria Bartomeu is threatened by a potential vote of no confidence, while the club are trying to ease a colossal wage bill, shown by their willingness to part with Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal for cut-price deals.

New coach Ronald Koeman, a beloved former player but with a patchy record as a club manager, faces a daunting task in reshaping an ageing side whose weaknesses were woefully exposed by the 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

Unlike predecessors Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien, the Dutchman will look to impose his authority on a dressing room that many believe has had too much power for too long and it will be fascinating to see how he gels with the players.

Hope for Barca comes in teenage forward Ansu Fati, who recently became Spain’s youngest goalscorer and had a highly promising debut campaign last time round.

Atletico Madrid are used to being Spain’s third force but face competition from Sevilla, who could even challenge the usual suspects in the title race if they build on an excellent season in which they finished fourth and won the Europa League.

Sevilla have crucially kept together most of their squad, having been accustomed to parting with 10 or more players each summer.

Villarreal are also one to watch after recruiting Unai Emery as coach and making some eye-catching signings including midfielders Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin from Valencia plus exciting playmaker Takefusa Kubo, on loan from Real Madrid.

Valencia, owned by Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, are braced for a testing season after parting with their captain Parejo plus Spain forward Rodrigo due to a dire financial situation which meant they were unable to pay their players.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE