MADRID – In the hothouse of Spanish football, traditional giants Real Madrid and Barcelona entered the Spanish league facing different burdens of expectation.
There were some doubts about Barcelona, and mostly high expectations of Real Madrid under new coach Rafa Benitez.
It has all changed quickly after just one round.
Real Madrid couldn't manage more than a disappointing 0-0 draw against newly promoted Real Gijon. Barcelona, with a depleted squad and coming off a humbling loss in the Spanish Super Cup final, did well enough to get a 1-0 win against Athletic Bilbao.
With the Madrid-born Benitez at the helm, the team arrived for the opener mostly at full strength and the traveling fans were filled with hopes of ending a three-year title drought in the league.
But it wasn't a good start on the field.
Although Real Madrid played better than Barcelona, it could not capitalize on numerous scoring opportunities, including some very good ones involving Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. In the end, the team left the El Molinon Stadium frustrated, and already behind Barcelona in the standings.
"It isn't the best way to start, but we won't let our heads drop and will keep working," Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane said.
Real Madrid will need to do more if it wants to finally break through with its second league title in the last eight seasons.
Barcelona found a way to win under difficult circumstances to earn the three points and take an early advantage over the archrival.
It was only one game, granted, but enough to show that Barcelona still has what it takes to remain the top contender it has always been despite an unusually difficult start to its season.
Luis Enrique's team arrived marred by a series of injuries and suspensions to important players, including Neymar and Gerard Pique, and things only got worse Sunday when it lost Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets because of injuries. There were no lavish signings as in previous years, and the team saw the departure of some of its top players, including Pedro Rodriguez and Xavi Hernandez.
More questions were raised just before the team started the defense of its title, as it was stunned by Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final, losing the first leg 4-0 in one of its worst results in recent years. It only managed a 1-1 draw in the return game at home.
Another setback in the rematch against Bilbao in the league opener would not have overy-surprised fans and things looked grim early on as Alves had to be replaced because of an apparent muscle injury and Lionel Messi missed a penalty in the first half.
Barcelona wasn't at its best and looked ineffective, but Luis Suarez saved the day with a shot from close range after a cross by Jordi Alba in the 54th minute. It was more than enough, and Barcelona just managed to hold on until the final whistle.
"We started the championship the same way we started last season, at a very high level," Enrique said. "We kept Athletic from creating any danger and I think we played a complete match in all areas of the field."
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