Atletico Madrid’s La Liga challenge will not succeed or fail on Saturday but end a decade-long drought by beating Barcelona and they could justifiably become favourites for the title.
A first league victory over Barca since 2010 would put Atletico nine points clear of their opponents and extend an impressive unbeaten run in the league to 24 matches.
They have played seven games so far this season, scoring 17 goals while conceding only two.
A convincing start, spearheaded by a flourishing Joao Felix and the invigorated Luis Suarez, has generated optimism but a real sense of opportunity has sprouted from the imperfections of their rivals.
Real Madrid have already lost twice, with Zinedine Zidane under pressure and all the guile and resilience that won them the title in July seemingly now absent four months later.
Barcelona are trying to begin again under Ronald Koeman but the teething problems that have them sitting eighth ahead of the trip to the Wanda Metropolitano are unlikely to be resolved soon, particularly with the upheaval of presidential elections to come in January.
Two teams at what feels like the end of two hugely successful cycles has created an opening for Atletico, whose own transition should be further along after their new crop proved raw last season but looks readier to capitalise this term.
The most obvious example of maturity is Felix, the 21-year-old who struggled to live up to expectations in his first year but has arguably been La Liga’s most influential player at this early stage of his second.
It is a great pity that Suarez, infected by coronavirus, will not face Barcelona, the club that so clumsily cast him aside in the summer.
But if Atletico are to win the title this season, it is likely to be with Felix as the driving force.
The Portuguese has already equalled the nine goals and assists he managed last season, with his instinctive, creative talents helping to unlock Atletico’s previously stodgy attack.
“He’s always had great moments for us but what he has now is consistency,” said coach Diego Simeone last month. “It’s a big year for him and hopefully he’ll keep getting better.”
Felix’s next challenge is to define games like this one and to give Simeone’s side even just a taste of the lethal touch in this fixture that Lionel Messi has given Barcelona.
Simeone was left applauding when Messi’s superb strike into the corner decided the contest at the Wanda Metropolitano last year, his 31st goal in 40 games against Atletico.
Messi is the thorn in Simeone’s side but the 33-year-old has not been his scintillating self in recent weeks, still weighed down perhaps by his blocked attempt to leave last summer.
There could be a lack of freshness in his legs too this weekend, given the Argentinian only finished playing 90 minutes against Peru in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Barca will also be missing Ansu Fati and Sergio Busquets, both of them injured.
Even without Suarez, Atletico may feel then like the time is now to overcome their Catalan jinx, with the reward in the table potentially significant if a depleted Real Madrid also stumble away at Villarreal a few hours earlier.
Madrid’s defensive problems will not be helped by injuries to Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane while Villarreal are flying high in second, following four victories on the bounce.
But the benefits to Atletico in terms of belief could be even more valuable than places jumped or gaps extended, with major rivals vulnerable and a league title there for taking.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Osasuna v Huesca (2000)
Levante v Elche (1300), Villarreal v Real Madrid (1515), Sevilla v Celta Vigo (1730), Atletico Madrid v Barcelona (2000)
Eibar v Getafe (1300), Cadiz v Real Sociedad (1515), Granada v Real Valladolid (1730), Alaves v Valencia (2000)
Sergio Ramos scored a late penalty as Real Madrid came from behind to scrape a 3-2 win against 10-man Real Betis, their first La Liga victory of the season.
Betis were ahead at half-time after two goals in two minutes from Aissa Mandi and William Carvalho overturned Fede Valverde’s opener for the reigning champions.
But Betis defender Emerson, who is on loan from Barcelona, endured a nightmare start to the second half by scoring an own-goal and then being sent off for knocking over Luka Jovic after the striker had been sent clear.
VAR again intervened in Madrid’s favour in the 82nd minute as Marc Bartra was adjudged to have cleared with his arm, leaving Ramos to chip in the winning penalty.
Betis were fuming at referee Ricard de Burgos at full-time and while the red card seemed fair, they were unlucky to concede the penalty, with Bartra seemingly nudged into the ball by Madrid’s Borja Mayoral.
Madrid, though, breathed a sigh of relief, their opening win secured having kicked off the season with a goalless draw away at Real Sociedad last weekend.
“I’m not getting into the referees,” said Zidane. “We suffered of course but in the end we got the three points.”
Ramos converting from the spot felt familiar after his three penalties during Madrid’s run to the title last term but this was an uncharacteristically sloppy defensive display from Zinedine Zidane’s side.
It was the first time they had conceded twice in the first half of a league match since Zidane returned as coach 18 months ago and it would have cost them had their opponents been less generous.
Defeat for Betis ends what had been a perfect start under new coach Manuel Pellegrini, after two wins out of two against Alaves and Real Valladolid.
“From Madrid’s first goal to the end of the first half we were much superior,” said Mandi. “But we weren’t able to get a clean sheet in the second half.”
Victory for Madrid puts early pressure on Barcelona, who begin with Lionel Messi back in the fold at home to Villarreal on Sunday. Atletico Madrid also play their first game on Sunday at home to Granada.
Eden Hazard was still absent in Seville, not even included on the bench as Zidane continues to insist the Belgian regain full fitness before returning to action.
Jovic was given a rare start up front but the Serb missed a good chance before going off in the second half and it would not be a surprise if he departed before the end of the transfer window.
Benzema made Madrid’s opener, refusing to give in down the right, where he wriggled into space and crossed for Valverde to fire in at the near post.
Ramos should have made it two but lashed wide from eight yards out and then Betis found their rhythm, exerting more and more pressure as the half wore on.
They equalised when Mandi climbed above Casemiro to head in a cross from the excellent Sergio Canales, who then initiated a second two minutes later, spreading left to Nabil Fekir, who laid off for Carvalho to power through and drive home.
But Madrid were level three minutes after the restart as Emerson poked Carvajal’s cross into his own net and then the Betis defender was sent off, ajudged to have bundled into the back of Jovic, who had been put through by Benzema.
Ramos bent the free-kick wide, Benzema feathered past the post and substitute Borja scuffed a finish, only for De Burgos to review and decide the stumbling Bartra had diverted the ball away with his arm. Ramos made no mistake.
Valencia’s poor start to the season under new coach Javi Gracia continued as they were held earlier to a 1-1 draw by newly-promoted Huesca. Real Sociedad eased past Elche 3-0 while it finished goalless between Alaves and Getafe.
Lionel Messi will be back in a Barcelona shirt in La Liga, while Inter Milan begin their bid to end Juventus’ grip on the Serie A title and potential challengers face off in Germany and France.
AFP Sport picks out some of the standout action in Europe this weekend:
– Eyes on Messi on Koeman debut -Barcelona v Villarreal, Sunday 1900 GMT
Lionel Messi is staying at Barcelona for at least one more year and on Sunday he will be the centre of attention as the Catalans belatedly kick off their campaign in La Liga.
The game, behind closed doors, against Unai Emery’s Villarreal is also new coach Ronald Koeman’s first competitive outing in charge after one of the most turbulent summers in Barcelona’s history.
While Messi stayed against his will, Luis Suarez has departed for Atletico Madrid, following Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Nelson Semedo out of the door. Miralem Pjanic and the Portuguese international Trincao have come in.
Barcelona are a team in transition but there is no doubt that, as long as Messi is still there, anything is possible.
“Barca are a great side. I’m pleased that Messi has stayed and that we will continue to enjoy having him in La Liga,” said Emery, whose own team has already played twice, winning one and drawing one.
– Inter with point to prove -Inter Milan v Fiorentina, Saturday 1845 GMT
Antonio Conte’s Inter get their Serie A campaign underway against Fiorentina at San Siro having been given the opening weekend off due to their run to the Europa League final last month.
The Nerazzurri lost that game to Sevilla and also finished a point behind Juventus in the Serie A title race, so now their aim is to end the Turin side’s long domination of Italian football.
With Juve having beaten Sampdoria 3-0 in Andrea Pirlo’s first game as a coach, Inter need to get off to a good start and there will be plenty of focus on the new arrivals: Vidal but also Achraf Hakimi, the Moroccan full-back signed from Real Madrid for 40 million euros ($44.9m) after impressing on loan at Borussia Dortmund.
– Bayern’s rivals left to rebuild -Bayer Leverkusen v RB Leipzig, Saturday 1330 GMT
The Bundesliga is a hugely entertaining league but once again there are doubts as to whether any team can seriously threaten Bayern Munich’s hegemony.
Dortmund are the most likely contenders, while it remains to be seen if Leverkusen or Leipzig can mount a real challenge this time.
Leipzig finished third last season and reached the Champions League semi-finals. Leverkusen were fifth, just behind Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig remain the last team to hold Bayern while Peter Bosz’s Leverkusen are the last side to beat the Bavarians in Munich. But both teams lost their star player over the summer, with Leipzig’s Timo Werner and Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz moving to Chelsea.
So can they successfully replace them and compete again?
Leipzig this week paid Crystal Palace 20 million euros ($23m) for Alexander Sorloth, who is a direct Werner replacement. Meanwhile, Leverkusen recently signed Czech forward Patrik Schick from Roma. He was on loan at Leipzig last season.
Nagelsmann’s side were 3-1 winners against Mainz on the opening weekend but Leverkusen were held 0-0 at Wolfsburg. Saturday’s clash, before a limited crowd, will provide a measure of where both sides currently stand.
– Can somebody new challenge in France? -Saint-Etienne v Rennes, Saturday 1500 GMT
While Paris Saint-Germain have endured a slow start to their French title defence having been handicapped by a coronavirus outbreak, suspensions, and injuries, there is a fresh look for now at the top of Ligue 1.
Saint-Etienne and Rennes are level on points at the summit and they meet on Saturday amid hope that this campaign does not simply turn into another PSG procession.
Nobody realistically believes Saint-Etienne can add to their record tally of 10 titles though, even if manager Claude Puel is so far enjoying some success after overhauling his squad and promoting youth.
Rennes are a more interesting case, and not just because in 17-year-old midfielder Eduardo Camavinga they have possibly the hottest young property in world football.
The Brittany side finished third in the last, curtailed season and have been busy investing ahead of a first appearance in the Champions League. They have just sold goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to Chelsea, but they are certainly going to be worth watching this season.
Lionel Messi started and played 45 minutes in Barcelona’s first pre-season friendly on Saturday as Ronald Koeman showed no hesitation in reintegrating the Argentinian.
Barca beat third tier side Gimnastic Tarragona 3-1, with Ousmane Dembele opening the scoring on his first appearance since November.
Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho, who was also returning after his loan spell at Bayern Munich, then each scored penalties, either side of Javier Bonilla pulling one back for the visitors.
But Messi’s return at the Johan Cruyff Stadium was perhaps the biggest plus for Koeman, who was taking charge of his first game since being appointed coach last month.
Messi also led the team out wearing the armband after Barcelona had confirmed earlier on Saturday that he will continue as captain this season.
Both club and player appear keen to put on a united front, at least for now, ahead of their return to La Liga later this month.
After condemning the board last week and admitting he had been forced to stay, Messi arrived early on Monday for his return to pre-season training and worked on the squad’s days off in a bid to catch up.
Koeman, meanwhile, said last month he only wanted players who wanted to be at Barcelona but he was full of praise for Messi on Friday, calling him “the best”, and backed that up in his first team selection.
Messi played 45 minutes as part of Koeman’s plan to field two different line-ups in each half.
Yet his starting front three of Messi, Griezmann and Dembele looked suspiciously like a first-choice attack, with Dembele making his first appearance since he tore his hamstring nine months ago.
Koeman also handed starts to youngsters Carles Alena and Pedri in midfield while Jordi Alba, Clement Lenglet, Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto formed a familiar back four, ahead of Neto, who is standing in for the injured Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal.
New signing Francisco Trincao, Coutinho, Frenkie de Jong and 19-year-old American international Konrad de la Fuente were among those to come on for the second half.
There was no place in the squad for either Luis Suarez or Arturo Vidal, who have both been told they can leave.
Barcelona will not play their first La Liga game against Villarreal until round three at the end of the month, having been granted extra time off due to their involvement in last season’s Champions League.
Reigning champions Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are also sitting out the first weekend.
But seven games are scheduled this Saturday and Sunday, the first of them finishing goalless between Eibar and Celta Vigo.
Still without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic, Spain’s top flight got off to a slow start at Ipurua, where Eibar finished with 10 men after Pape Diop was sent off in the 87th minute.
Granada then picked up where they left off last season by defeating Athletic Bilbao 2-0 at Los Carmenes while newly-promoted Cadiz, back in La Liga for the first time in 14 years, lost 2-0 at home to Osasuna.
La Liga president Javier Tebas has said he was never seriously worried about the impact on the league if Lionel Messi had left Barcelona this summer.
Messi admitted defeat on Friday in his attempt to find a way out of Barca, insisting the club’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu had “broken his word” over an exit clause in his contract.
La Liga had previously intervened in the dispute by announcing Messi’s 700-million-euro release clause still applied, a statement later rejected by Messi’s agent and father Jorge.
Asked on Monday if Messi’s departure had been a serious worry for him, Tebas said: “A serious worry, no. A worry, yes.
“We always want Leo to be with us, I’ve said many times he is the best player in history and as president of La Liga, I would like him to finish his career in this competition.
“La Liga has been working for quite a few years to ensure that as a brand it is above individual players and clubs so the value is not affected by one or two players.
“But there was some worry because after 20 years with us, you want him to be here and not in another league.”
Tebas also said Messi’s departure would not have affected La Liga’s income from broadcast rights deals. “I don’t think so because we have already sold 90 per cent of the rights for the next four seasons, so I don’t think the departure of Messi would affect that issue,” he said.
– New season beckons –
The 2020/21 La Liga season begins on Friday, with Granada against Athletic Bilbao.
But last year’s top four, including reigning champions Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are all sitting out the opening weekend.
They have been given longer to recover after their involvement in last season’s European competitions.
Matches will still be without fans as Spain wrestles with a rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.
La Liga had hoped stadiums would be able to take a small percentage of their capacity in September but those plans have been shelved.
“It is a difficult question because it’s not up to La Liga,” said Tebas. “I believe that to see stadiums like before it can only happen with a vaccine.
“I hope it can be in January or February. Several governments have already announced it and that would be the beginning of the end of this bad dream.”
The pandemic has had a huge impact on La Liga’s clubs, with many suffering considerable financial losses from the lack of matchday income.
Some of the biggest clubs have been the worst affected, with Madrid yet to sign a new player this summer while Barcelona are desperately trying to offload their most expensive assets.
Several teams have also had to quarantine players who tested positive upon returning for pre-season.
“It will be a season of surprises,” predicted Tebas. “The big clubs are suffering the consequences of the crisis while the not so big ones, who depend more on television income, can make better signings and make the league more equal. It will be very interesting.”
Lionel Messi arrived at Barcelona’s training ground on Monday as he begins to reintegrate with the team following his failed attempt to leave the club this summer.
Messi was seen driving into the Ciutat Esportiva in Sant Joan Despi at just after 4:00 pm (1400 GMT) on Monday, where he is expected to take part in training for the first time under new coach Ronald Koeman.
Jorge Messi, the father and agent of Lionel Messi, published a response to La Liga on Friday, insisting the Barcelona striker’s 700-million-euro release clause no longer applies.
Messi senior claims the release clause is removed once the player takes up the option in his contract to leave for free, which Messi’s side believe he did when he notified Barca by burofax on August 25.
In the letter addressed to La Liga president Javier Tevas, Jorge Messi claims to quote a clause in Messi’s contract that says: “This release clause will not apply when the player’s decision to unilaterally rescind the contract takes effect from the end of the 2019-2020 season.”
La Liga had backed up Barcelona’s position last weekend by announcing that Messi’s release clause remains valid.
And the Spanish league reacted almost immediately by reiterating their stance and saying Jorge Messi’s interpretation of the contract was “out of context” and “far removed” from its wording.
Jorge Messi’s bullish statement indicates his son remains committed to leaving Barca this summer, despite suggestions the 33-year-old’s stance could be softening.
However, there has been no overt declaration that Messi will still depart, perhaps offering some hope to Barcelona supporters.
The validity of the release clause in Messi’s contract is important because its existence means Messi could be liable to pay the amount himself if he joined another club but lost a subsequent legal battle in court.
Barcelona believe the option in the player’s contract that allowed him to leave for free expired on June 10.
Messi’s side insist the deadline was the end of the season, which was extended into August due to the pandemic.
Notably, Jorge Messi did not mention a specific date when quoting that clause in his statement.
“We do not know which contract you have analysed and what is the basis that leads you to conclude there was an applicable release clause if the player decided to unilaterally end his contract at the end of the 19-20 season,” he wrote.
He adds that it was an “obvious error on your part”.
Messi’s father had held talks with Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu on Thursday but both sides reiterated their arguments and no agreement was reached.
Veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has signed a one-year contract extension with AC Milan, the Italian giants announced on Monday.
The former Swedish international, who turns 39 in October, rejoined Milan in January and will stay at the San Siro until the end of June 2021.
“Today (Monday), Zlatan Ibrahimovic rejoined his teammates and coach Stefano Pioli at Milanello Sports Center, where he took part in his first training session of the season,” the club said in a statement.
According to Italian media reports, Ibrahimovic has agreed to a seven-million-euro ($8.35-million) annual salary with Milan.
He helped Pioli’s side bounce back from a poor first half of last season, scoring 11 goals in 20 games in all competitions to help fire the seven-time European champions to Europa League qualification.
Ibrahimovic said at the weekend that he “wanted to help the club return to where they belong”.
“For six months, we have done great things but we have not won anything. We must continue and do the same,” he said in a video.
The 38-year-old previously played for the Rossoneri from 2010-2012, scoring 56 goals and winning the 2011 Serie A title under Massimiliano Allegri.
It had been widely expected that ‘Ibra’ would sign a new deal and he will take the number 11 shirt, having played as Milan’s number 21 last term.
He had returned from American MLS outfit Los Angeles Galaxy on a six-month contract with an optional extra year.
Milan finished last season with a 12-match unbeaten streak in Serie A to grab a sixth-place finish, although they still fell short of returning to the Champions League for the first time since 2014.
Ibrahimovic has also played for Juventus and Inter Milan in Italy during his illustrious career and starred for Paris Saint-Germain in France and Manchester United in the Premier League.
He won four Ligue 1 titles with PSG during a four-year spell in which he became the club’s record goalscorer, a mantle since taken by Edinson Cavani.
‘Ibra’ has also lifted the La Liga trophy with Barcelona in 2010, three league titles with Inter and two Eredivisie crowns while at Ajax.
Barcelona will play Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou on October 25, after the La Liga fixtures were announced on Monday.
Barca and Madrid will then face each other at the Santiago Bernabeu on April 11, with Zinedine Zidane’s side looking to defend the Spanish league title they won in July.
Whether Lionel Messi features in either match remains to be seen, with the Argentinian currently on strike and refusing to train as he tries to force his way out of the club this summer.
Barcelona are scheduled to start at home to Elche and Madrid at home to Getafe but both games will be rearranged to allow more rest for teams involved in last season’s European competitions, which only ended in August.
Atletico Madrid’s opener at home to Sevilla will therefore also be postponed.
Instead, Real Madrid are likely to begin at Real Sociedad on the weekend of September 20 before Barcelona are expected to start at home to Villarreal a week later.
All matches will continue to be staged behind closed doors and according to strict medical regulations aimed at reducing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first games of the new season will be played on the weekend of September 12, eight weeks after the 2019/20 campaign ended on July 19.
Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu repeated on Sunday that he had “no doubt” that Lionel Messi would sign a new contract adding that he can only see Neymar returning in a player exchange.
“Messi has said many times that he wants to retire here and I have no doubt that he will re-sign,” said Bartomeu in an interview published by Barcelona’s sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo.
Messi’s contract expires in June of 2021 and local radio station Cadena Ser reported at the start of July that the Argentine had broken off talks with the club.
Messi has had regular disagreements with the club’s board.
He reacted publicly when sporting director Eric Abidal appeared to blame the players for the sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde in January.
He also led the fightback from the Barcelona players over a dispute with the board in March regarding pay cuts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Barcelona collapsed after La Liga resumed to drop to second as Real Madrid took the title and the 33-year-old Messi was one of those criticised.
In discussing plans for next season and financial constraints on the club, Bartomeu addressed another long-running issue: the possibility that Neymar would return from Paris Saint-Germain.
“Now we are making decisions and the players, if they do not come as part of player exchange players, it is very difficult for them to come,” Bartomeu said.
Bartomeu said another priority was persuading German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, whose contract expires in 2022, to sign a new deal “not only for his quality as a goalkeeper but for his personality”.
“He’s a pillar of the dressing room and of the future,” said Bartomeu. “At 28 he’s one of the three best in the world.”
He said he was less concerned about Uruguayan Luis Suarez, who is a free agent next year because “depending on the number of games he plays, the contract automatically renews for the 2021-22 season”.
Bartomeu also said talks with Inter Milan over Argentinian striker Lautaro Martinez were “at a standstill”.