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Aug 18, 2013

Barcelona stroll, Real Madrid made to sweat

Viva La Liga loca. At least I managed to get along to the opening game of the season, at 7 p.m. on a balmy Saturday night in Anoeta, but that didn't require much effort from me. All it took was a five-minute motorbike ride with my son and we were there. It was also nice to start the season at a decent time, with the warm day fading and the evening opening up with its comfy summer glow and its range of possibilities. But before we get too starry-eyed, spare a thought for the three promoted sides, Elche, Almeria and Villarreal. Elche, particularly, must have been looking forward to this moment for some time -- since 1989 to be exact -- only to be informed a fortnight ago, along with their fellow promotees, that they would be playing on the Monday night of the opening day of the season. Not only that, but Almeria and Villarreal, paired together so soon after their escape from the Segunda Division, will play at 10 p.m. Welcome to the great family game in Spain!

- Corrigan: Late winner saves Madrid - Rigg: Isco brings disco to Madrid - Ledwith: Little to learn from thrashing

So Almeria play Monday, the day that nobody loves, and then follow up their start with a second game next Friday, away to Getafe. As they say, one law for some, another for the others, who need no mention. On the same Friday next week, Athletic Bilbao play Osasuna at Anoeta in San Sebastian at 10 p.m., because their new stadium, Sam Mames Barria, is still covered in brick dust. Neither set of fans has to travel too far but, nevertheless, it seems a strange time to arrange the fixture. Surely, such a game is crying out to be played in the afternoon or early evening? Forgive the opening-day rant, but I just don't get it.

This strange lack of consideration for the people who maintain the game, the paying spectator, is hitting rock-bottom this season in La Liga, and there will surely be a reaction. Meanwhile, let's focus on what really matters. Carlos Vela scored the season's opener, after 42 minutes of Real Sociedad's aforementioned game against Getafe, and then debutant Haris Seferovic added a nifty second to help the Basque team start the season where they finished off the previous one -- winning games in style. On Tuesday night, they travel to Lyon for the Champions League qualifier. I was tempted to go, but the flight, hotel and entrance fee were a bit out of my range. I'll wait for the final.

The weekend's eye-opener was Barcelona's 7-0 annihilation of Levante, with marquee signing Neymar on the bench (he came on later in the second half). The result was probably never in doubt, although such a drubbing was perhaps unexpected, Levante having resisted all attempts in recent seasons to lie down and be considered also-rans. Unfortunately, with all the internal strife last season, and the departures of Jose Javier Barkero, Gustavo Munua and Juanlu, this season looks like being an uphill struggle. Barcelona helped themselves to the cake, and Tata Martino got off to the kind of start most managers fantasise about. It was 6-0 at halftime, and in the second half the hosts seemed to lift their feet from the gas somewhat. The result was in fact Barcelona's biggest opening-day victory in their history, so the new coach has already entered the record books.

Leo Messi scored a couple, and was permitted the luxury of being tactically substituted during the second half (for the first time in three years) as the game trundled on to its inevitable conclusion. The champions looked as well-oiled as ever, with few radical changes to the system and a straightforward 4-3-3 line-up. Next week down at Malaga might be more of a test for the new regime, although the much–changed Andalucians got off to a negative start under their new boss, Bernd Schuster, who is back in the mix after getting bored of losing at golf to his wife. Let's see how long he lasts (at Malaga -– not with his wife), although at the very least he'll be worth a few sound bites. The chasm left by Jose Mourinho is already beginning to yawn.

Talking of sound bites, Joaquin Caparros, Levante's new man in charge, left the press pack with a gem after the Barcelona game, with the phrase "Ya hemos salido del dentista. Que pase el siguiente." ("We've got out of the dentist's chair now. Let the next one take a seat.") Well, it might not always be extractions without anaesthetic. The result in the Camp Nou could be taken as an early confirmation of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, or just an indication of how bad Levante will be this season.

Whatever the case, over in the Bernabeu, Betis were making their hosts sweat much more, and actually had the temerity to spoil Carlo Ancelotti's first-day party by taking the lead. Madrid, with Xabi Alonso and Asier Illarramendi still injured, used Luka Modric as the creator-in-chief, with new signing Isco pushed high up the field. There were also starting places for Dani Carvajal and, surprisingly, goalkeeper Diego Lopez. The latter was an interesting decision, given last year's hoo-ha over Iker Casillas' fast in the wild, but it seems that Ancelotti prefers not to be swayed too much by public opinion. He certainly showed more gumption than Vicente Del Bosque, and picked Lopez on merit. The hard-core Casillas fans will forgive him this time, but if things go wrong it will be used as evidence against him, in time-honoured fashion.

New signing Isco played intermittently but got his manager out of an early crisis with a splendid header, five minutes from the end. Betis played really well, with the pacey Cedric and Jorge Molina causing them all sorts of problems, particularly in the first half. Madrid looked in need of a calmer orchestrator than Modric, and the metronomic importance of Alonso was once again manifest by its absence. Illarramendi too would have lent a hand, but let's not kill the new project before it's begun. Madrid huffed and puffed and eventually got out of jail, but it wasn't a very convincing start, after all the praise they have earned in preseason.

Next Monday, they visit Granada, where they lost last February in a game that began to unravel their season. They won't be looking forward to it, especially as their hosts-to-come will be buoyed by their opening-day 2-1 win at Osasuna, with Youssef El Arabi and Hassan Yebda scoring the goals. Osasuna decided to rename their ground "El Sadar" after controversially calling it Reyno de Navarra since 2005, but it failed to prove a lucky charm. It took 37-year-old Patxi Punal to score for the hosts, who once again looked as though they will suffer in front of goal, like last season. By contrast, plenty of folks are tipping Lucas Alcaraz's Granada to do much better this season.

Another new manager got off to a good start, Athletic's Ernesto Valverde steering his new charges to a 2-1 win at Valladolid. After last season's painful experiences, the result will look like a good omen, especially after Iker Muniain, one of last year's great disappointments, scored the winner. Miroslav Dukic was also starting life out at the helm of a new club, Valencia, and he too got off to a winning start. Roberto Soldado is no longer there, instead scoring for Tottenham on Sunday -– but the new squad looks interesting, with Oriol Romeu, Helder Postiga, Javi Fuego, Michel and Paco Alcacer as additions. Dukic has a decent-looking squad to count on.

Atletico Madrid, the other side expected to make some sort of attempt to wobble the castle walls, began life without Radamel Falcao in a tough-looking fixture at Sevilla, but ran out 3-1 winners, Diego Costa once again proving the decisive man with a brace. David Villa started the game, and looks strange in stripes, even though he wore them when he started out at Sporting de Gijon. Sevilla no longer have the wonderful Jesus Navas on the wing nor Alvaro Negredo in attack after the pair headed to Manchester City and, while they have kept Geoffrey Kondogbia (for now), they may struggle this season. They could really have done without losing this opening fixture.

Down in the second tier, the recently descended Mallorca lost their opener 4-0 to Sabadell, while Deportivo faced Las Palmas away, with their departed hero, Juan Carlos Valeron, captaining the home side for his first game there. It's strange how fate arranges these things, but Deportivo managed to win 1-0 and get themselves off to a happy start. It's going to be a long season in the silver division.

So, football's back. It always takes a few weeks to adjust, but it was nice to be back in the stands for the customary 90-minute emotional ride. I'll quote Albert Camus again, but only because he was right: "Time is an inconvenience between football matches."

Bring it on.