If the opening weekend of La Liga is anything to go, we have quite a season ahead of us. It produced 40 goals, a host of shock results, numerous talking points and a mix of fine attacking play and some woeful defending. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect though was just how well the three newly promoted sides performed as they all avoided defeat away from home against sides that finished in the top eight last season.
Osasuna, Leganés and Alavés have all been tipped to struggle having secured promotion from a fairly mediocre Segunda Division in the Spring. Champions Alavés failed to pass 50 goals in the 42 game season and nor did Osasuna who only crept into the play-offs on the final day. Despite finishing 2nd Leganes were arguably the most impressive side but having never played in the top flight before and operating on a tiny budget, they were clearly among the strong pre-season favourites for the drop. However all three newly promoted clubs defied the odds on the opening weekend with performances that suggest they could emulate the teams that came up last term, who all managed to beat the drop.
It kicked off on Friday night with Osasuna grabbing a late point on the Costa del Sol. The Pamplona outfit held their own against Malaga for much of the game and would have felt substitute Fran Mérida’s late leveller was fair reward for their efforts against Juande Ramos’ side.
It was a special moment for the 26 year old, who made 6 Premier League appearances for Arsenal as a teenager prior to a downward spiral that saw him fail to initially make the grade in the top flight in either England or Spain and end up in the Segunda B with Huesca after a curious move to Brazil also failed to work out. Merida has got back on track though and as the only player Osasuna spent any money on during the summer, he could be a key player for them this season as he looks to rekindle his early promise.
Alavés meanwhile bagged an even later and even more dramatic equaliser in their tough opening game at the Vicente Calderon. Having battled hard and managed to restrict Atleti to mostly half-openings for 90 minutes they were left devastated when the hosts were awarded a stoppage time penalty for a clumsy challenge on Fernando Torres, which Alaves claimed was outside the box. Kevin Gameiro converted the spot-kick on what was an otherwise forgettable debut for him but devastation soon turned to jubilation for the hordes of travelling Alavés fans who were enjoying their first game back in the top flight in a decade.
Atleti fans had barely had time to finish breathing a collective sigh of relief when Manu García produced perhaps the stand-out moment from an intoxicating opening weekend in La Liga. The boyhood Alavés fan, on his first ever start in the top flight at the age of 30, let fly from close to 30 yards out with a shot that flew past Jan Oblak in the Atleti goal to give the Basques a memorable 95th minute equaliser.
Leganés though, playing in their first ever top flight fixture would go one better on Monday night by winning 1-0 at Celta Vigo, a side that finished 6th in La Liga last season. They also left it pretty late to get their goal having spurned good chances to take the lead prior to their 75th minute winner from the unlikely source of right-back Víctor Díaz. His clever volleyed finish gave Leganés a massive boost going into their first home game against local rivals Atletico Madrid this Saturday.
It all contributed to what was surely one of the best opening weekends in the history of Spanish football and one that firmly hit back at La Liga’s detractors who have a tendency to casually refer to it as both boring and predictable. As well as the performances of the newly promoted sides, we saw Las Palmas score 4 goals and win at the Mestalla, Sporting Gijon beat Athletic Bilbao despite having lost numerous key players over the summer while Granada, who’ve lost virtually their whole team, held last season’s 4th place side, Villarreal.
Throw in 10 goals at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, 6 of them scored by players making league debuts for Sevilla and you have the perfect re-post to the predictable ‘only in the Premier League’ claims that followed Liverpool’s 4-3 win at Arsenal on an otherwise fairly unremarkable opening weekend in the English top flight.
The fact that mention of Barcelona and Real Madrid has been reduced to a mere footnote is testament to the quality of the action elsewhere. However before Spanish football affectionados can get too carried away about the possibility of a more competitive season, a note of caution can be found in the league table, which already reads ‘1st Barcelona, 2nd Real Madrid’ after both sides won their opening fixture comfortably despite the absence of some key players.
Clearly an enormous gulf in resources and quality still exists between the top sides and the rest but as the performances of Alavés, Leganés and Osasuna on match-day one have proved there is strength in depth in this league and it promises to be a fascinating campaign at both ends of the division.