Today, at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, Real Madrid overwhelmed visiting Cordoba 2-0 in a dominant if not convincing performance by the new-look Merengues. Also today, visiting Atletico Madrid tied hosts Rayo Vallecano 0-0 at the Campo de Futbol de Vallecas. Yesterday, FC Barcelona hosted hapless Elche and beat them convincingly 3-0 with a brace from Lionel Messi and a nice tally by the newest La Masia sensation Munir El Haddadi Mohamed.
In a rare opportunity to see, back-to-back, how the top three La Liga contenders are faring early on each made a different statement while maintaining their title viability intact.
Real played effectively from their box to their opponent’s, but fizzled at the latter quarter of the pitch. Carlo Ancelotti seemed displeased with his team’s performance as they had the lion’s share of possession but could not produce a proportionate number of scoring opportunities. Cristiano Ronaldo seemed out of synch with the rest of the team and was caught off sides numerous times. The rest of the team seemed well positioned defensively but lacked that last touch offensively that would have converted a nice play into a score.
Ancelotti is still tinkering with his line-up despite having now used James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up front, Ronaldo, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos in midfield and Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Iker Casillas at their defensive posts, for three games running. It is the defensive group that remained unsettled while the first two lines seemed set with the use of occasional replacements as the games progress and warrant. Perhaps a Marcelo and Favio Coentrao duo at left and right wingbacks are the missing pieces to a very offensive tilting Real.
The victory was accomplished thanks to a perfect Kroos corner combined with a Benzema header off the post for the opening score. Then, a frustrated Ronaldo took out his displeasure via a long range shot that bounced just before crashing into the nets for the second and final score, deep into the second half. The game never seemed like it would get away from Real but the question of whether it would end up a win or draw remained until the 30th minute—very similar to the Barcelona-Elche match.
In the game at the Camp Nou, the Catalans were in total control, playing well and on all cylinders with Munir in place of Neymar and with a reinvigorated and determined Messi focused on scoring. The possession did translate into beautiful football and a few crossbar rattles but no score until Messi broke the spell and opened his season’s count at the 42nd minute. The difference between this score and Real’s was that Barca’s seemed about to happen at any minute while Real’s seemed like it just might not until it did.
Messi and Luis Enrique seem happy to have an inspired Munir to cover for the recovering Neymar who was out of action due to a recent leg issue unrelated to his back. The Catalans are clicking already and look the better one from this trio while the Merengues seem an Ancelotti tweak away from keeping pace. Atleti is repeating the script that got it a trophy, and into contention for everything available, last year. Only the refs will decide if that manner of action on the pitch will be deemed Fair Play and thus acceptable in La Liga this season.
In their game with Rayo today, the Colchoneros found themselves playing a host who was both inspired and willing to meet their visitors’ script with an identical one of their own. The game in the first half was intense and produced several rough plays, a few requiring medical intervention and bandages, but no score. The second half was a repeat of the first in intensity and roughness but it also provided the answer others might well heed. If one plays Atleti at their game with the same level of intensity you can pull out a result.
Albeit the visitors were missing key players due to injury or suspension (Raul Garcia, Arda Turan) but the feeling of the game was that no matter who Atleti brought in they were in for a fight.
All along, Atleti’s coach, Diego Simeone, serving his eight match ban for his red card during the Spanish Super Cup, could be seen watching his team follow his libretto from a box at Vallecas. But his influence on his team is undisputed and his early effect upon the season seems assured. Fortunately, his behavior was deemed unacceptable by the La Liga officials and his punishment might be a signal that there are limits to this manner of playing and coaching. Hopefully the bite behind the current sanction will remain in effect, and not recede, should the behavior be repeated.
As of game one of the new La Liga season, we have three contenders. A high flying and classy Barcelona, a sputtering Real who is nevertheless air-bound and trying to straighten out, and a well planted Atleti ready to ground all foes, if the refs allow. It is a three horse race today but that could change with a tweak to a roster, or body, or rule book.