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Sep 1, 2008

First day fumbles

And they're off! Even before the Sunday games got under way for this, the opening weekend of the new Spanish season, Real Madrid's out-of-favour Brazilian Robinho, left behind in Madrid as the team travelled to Coruaña to play Deportivo, announced that he would tell the press 'the scandal of the century', or words to that effect.

In the end, he told the mass of flashing light-bulbs that 'Schuster isn't my father' - which the German probably already knew. So instead of a paternity suit to start the new season with, last year's champions lost again to Deportivo, making it eighteen years in the Riazor without a win. Van Nistlerooy (who else?) scored Madrid's 4,999th goal in professional competition since 1929, but it is almost certain that Robinho will not be the scorer of the 5,000th.

This should hardly matter to Real Madrid anyway, who secretly have little confidence in him, but who nevertheless have tried to extract the maximum amount from Abramovich's pocket before the deadline. Chelsea would be mad to pay any more than £10m for him, but logic has long since departed the European football scene. Arjen Robben is a far better player, and Madrid know it. Chelsea don't seem to, but that's their problem. You just feel that they might try to go about things in a slightly less absurd manner to begin the season - accusing Chelsea of exactly the same conduct of which they were guilty throughout the summer in 'Ronaldogate'.

Whatever, when was the last time that the season got under way with the big two both losing? Aw gawd, that's a tricky one at midnight on a Sunday, so I'll shirk the question by simply suggesting that it's a long time. Barcelona, as you may have gathered, also came a cropper up in the wilds of Soria at Numancia (1-0), to get Pep Guardiola off to a less than auspicious start.

Then again, other teams will also struggle at Los Pajaritos this season, where Sergio Kresic has taken over a solid if unspectacular squad for a renewed attempt to stay in the top flight, their last attempt having been in the 2004-05 season when they were relegated back straight away. Not too much should be read into their beating of Barça, since it was always going to be a tough call for the Catalans on the opening day at a stadium in every aspect a million miles removed from their own - but it won't do Numancia's confidence any harm and it does confirm what many commentators have been saying - that they are much more likely to stay the course than the other two promoted clubs, Sporting and Málaga.

Next week they visit Real Madrid, which should prove more than interesting. But talk about a baptism of fire. From the third week onwards, it's all downhill for them.

The inevitable question for the opening column of the season concerns, as ever, whether any team is capable of sustaining a real challenge to the big two. Villarreal were magnificent last season, and looking at their squad for the present one you have to say that the midfield they have put together is probably the best in the league, at least on paper. It remains a mystery how a side on their relatively limited resources have managed to pull off this feat, but pull it off they have. Spain's victory in the Euro 2008 would have been unlikely without the backbone that this team provided, and the further miracle in the wake of that fantastic competition is that Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla are still there. Senna was tempted to join Dani Güiza at Fenerbahce but decided against it in the end, and Cazorla was briefly tempted by Real Madrid before also concluding that it might be better to stay put. Ariel Ibagaza has joined them from Mallorca, and whilst he has been an inconsistent performer over the years, he is nevertheless a fine player. The deceptive and tricky Joseba Llorente has been added to the strikeforce from Valladolid, and Llorente has always scored goals. What he lacks in pace he makes up for in guile, and it will be interesting to see how he fares with Nihat, once the Turk recovers.

Meanwhile the interesting signing from the USA, Josmer Altidore, may well get some games in if Rossi also fails to recover. Perhaps the distractions of the Champions League will prove their undoing, but at their last time of asking they made the semi-finals. A draw up at Osasuna seemed a decent enough start, but they'll want the three points against Deportivo next week to really get back last season's feel-good factor.

Atlético Madrid? Sevilla? Valencia? Atlético got off to a great start, beating Málaga 4-0, but Málaga are the least likely of the promoted clubs to stay the course. Atlético are also in the Champions League this season but have made no real significant additions to their squad - Sinama Pongolle being the only real signing of note - but in Kun Agüero they have a potential great, as we now know. The only problem for the club is that if he really does have the great season that he is promising, he'll sign for Chelsea at the end of the campaign and Atlético will revert back to being their usual messy selves.

Sevilla seem intent on a long and agonising period of deconstruction, whose aim is anyone's guess. Dani Alves has gone to Barça, but that was always on the cards. Keita has also gone to the Camp Nou and Poulsen, so often the anchor man of the side, has gone to Juventus. Luis Fabiano has not gone to Tottenham after all, but if he stays the entire season it will be a surprise. Aldo Duscher, Beckham's old friend, has been signed to fill Poulsen's place in midfield, but he's hardly the stuff that a title challenge is made of. Capel, Duda, Navas and Fabiano are still there, as is Kanouté, but it's difficult to see them having a better season than the last one, despite their late showing.

Valencia hammered Mallorca 3-0 to dispel some of the gloom that was still around in the summer, but at the time of writing Real Madrid were still insisting that they would attempt to sign David Villa before the Monday close of business. It makes you wonder why they didn't simply begin the process post-Euro 2008, instead of flirting so ridiculously with Cristiano Ronaldo, but there you go. Villa and Silva are still at the Mestalla, Albelda is back, as is Angulo, and their young manager Unai Emery is clearly a bit of a star, but there are still boardroom disputes to settle, an unclear new stadium project and the weight of last season's traumatic events still hovering in the air. This season should be less disastrous (it would be difficult to surpass last season's collective farce) but a serious challenge in the league looks unlikely. Racing and Almería, last season's surprise packages, should be fine again this season, but Mallorca, who also had a more than decent campaign, have been weakened over the summer and may struggle.

In general, the happy events of Euro 2008 have cast a golden sheen once again on La Liga, after England's Premier League threatened to overshadow it with its dominance of last season's Champions League. The mass export of players has not happened, and Deco remains the only real loss of genuine talent for this campaign - but he's Brazilian/Portugese anyway.

Real Madrid have only signed Van de Vaart, and if no-one else is forthcoming, they will have to hope that their ageing strikeforce stays the course.

Another failure in Europe this season may spell the end for Calderón and Mijatovic. Barça have lost some significant names (Ronaldinho, Deco, Oleguer, Edmilson, Thuram, Zambrotta) but have signed two wonderful players in Hleb and Alves. The only question is whether Hleb, particularly, will fit in - given that Iniesta is a very similar player.

Hleb is the type of player Real Madrid should have bought, but they were far too busy on a wild goose-chase. If they stutter this season, people will look back on the summer of 2008 and begin to point the finger.

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