Of the three title contenders this season, the Catalans impressed the most as the two capital clubs looked tired after playing each other on Tuesday and Friday last weekBy Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
La Liga is more a marathon than a sprint. Spain's Primera Divison will be won by the team that can consistently churn out the best results over the course of a 38-game, nine-month campaign. But Barcelona came flying out of the blocks on Saturday to impress the most on the first weekend of action.
Pipped at the post by Atletico last term, the Blaugrana began a new era under Luis Enrique on Sunday and kicked off in some style with a superb 3-0 win at home to Elche, a victory which saw Lionel Messi back to his brilliant best and the emergence of young striker Munir El Haddadi as an exciting talent for the future - as well as the present, after netting in between the Argentine's two strikes.
"It was a nice night for everyone," Luis Enrique said afterwards. "The fans have gone home happy."
Barca missed out on the big trophies at the end of 2013-14, as Gerardo Martino's men were knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage by Atleti, then beaten in the final of the Copa del Rey by Madrid and edged out in the battle for La Liga by Diego Simeone's side at Camp Nou. So, they definitely had something of a point to prove after claiming only the Supercopa de Espana last term.
UNFIT | Ronaldo, like Madrid, is nowhere near peak fitnessAnd it was that same competition which left both Madrid and Atleti fatigued ahead of their Liga debuts on Monday night, after the two city rivals met in fiercely disputed derbies at the Santiago Bernabeu and the Vicente Calderon on Tuesday and Friday of last week.
Madrid were beginning life without Angel Di Maria, as the Argentine flew to England to complete his move to Manchester United, and, in his absence, the team were missing energy and effervescence all over the pitch.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti made changes, but Marcelo and Alvaro Arbeloa were both disappointing in a lethargic showing which saw Madrid move in front thanks to Karim Benzema's header from a Toni Kroos corner in the first half but struggle for long periods.
Cordoba came close to an equaliser on a couple of occasions and the promoted side even had the ball in the net in the second half, only to see the effort correctly chalked off for offside. Madrid, meanwhile, earned a chorus of boos from their own fans and the jeers would have been louder at the final whistle had Cristiano Ronaldo (looking well short of full fitness after completing only 45 minutes in each Supercopa leg) not fired home from long range in the final minute.
Madrid also played in the Uefa Super Cup on August 12 and then faced Fiorentina in a friendly days later. "Cristiano is not in optimum condition, but we aren’t yet either," Ancelotti said after the game. "There was some tiredness because we’ve played every three days since August 12 and it’s not easy to play every three days in the pre-season."
ALL ALONE | Suspended Simeone watches on from a room in the stands at VallecasOn the plus side for Madrid, however, was the fact that the team secured all three points, something champions Atletico were unable to achieve in their local derby at Rayo Vallecano later on Monday.
With the suspended Simeone watching on from a small room in the stands, Atleti lacked their usual intensity and summer signing Mario Mandzukic (the hero on Friday with the winner against Madrid) was guilty of missing the vistors' two best chances.
This was a fixture Atletico would surely have won last season, but the Rojiblancos are still gelling this time around and had to settle for a goalless draw at Vallecas.
"We played on Tuesday and Friday and it's logical we felt the strain in the second half," said Simeone, who was already suspended for Monday's match and will miss four further fixtures in La Liga plus four more in future Supercopa clashes after he was hit with an eight-game ban for his slap on the back of the assistant referee's head against Madrid on Friday.
Next weekend, all three will have another opportunity to impress. Atleti are back at the Calderon to host Eibar, while it's Madrid and Barca with the tough trips - to Real Sociedad and Villarreal, respectively. Early days, but the title race has already begun in earnest.