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Football

La Liga: Barcelona, Madrid away from home on opening weekend

Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona

Estadio San Mames Barria, Bilbao

Friday, 16-08-2019 @10pm

Barcelona have an excellent recent head to head record against Athletic Bilbao after winning nine of the last 13 meetings, however the reigning champions would probably have wished for a much softer opening to the 2019/20 campaign. Ernesto Valverde’s men were held to draws in both league games with Los Leones last term, and the hosts will be fired up for this one, based on those results and their strong finish to the 2018/19 season.

Barca clinched their 26th La Liga title at a canter last term, finishing nine points clear of runners-up Atletico Madrid and 19 points ahead of their main adversaries Real. Yet it’s fair to say that they perhaps weren’t as aesthetically pleasing on the eye as they have been in the past, and struggled at times to break teams down. That was certainly the case in both league meetings with Bilbao which finished 1-1 and 0-0, two of nine draws posted by the Catalan giants across their 38 La Liga fixtures in total.

And the way Barca ended the 2018/19 season is a real concern heading into the new campaign. They blew a 3-0 advantage against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals, and lost 1-2 against Valencia in the Copa Del Rey final at Benito Villamarin. Factor in that Valverde’s side only managed to win one of their last five away matches in the league, and we can start to make a case for the hosts getting a result in this Friday’s opening game.

The additions of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong over the summer should go a long way towards restoring Barca’s aura of invincibility, and the champions will be mightily difficult to stop over course and distance once again, with a number of their main challengers in the midst of rebuilding.  But although the new faces are set to feature at San Mames this Friday, they could well take a couple of weeks to acclimatise, whilst star man Lionel Messi misses out with a calf strain.

Bilbao began woefully last term but turned things around well to finish 8th after Gaizka Garitano replaced Eduardo Berizzo in December, and their home form overall is formidable heading into this encounter. They haven’t tasted defeat at San Mames since October and they will be desperate to keep that 14 match streak in-tact here.

Celta Vigo vs Real Madrid

Abanca Balaidos, Vigo

Saturday, 17-08-2019 @6pm

The new season won’t have come around quick enough for Real Madrid, who will be desperate to hit back after a miserable 2018/19 campaign. Los Merengues finished 3rd in La Liga and 19 points behind El Clasico rivals Barcelona, whilst they also suffered heavy defeats upon exiting the Copa Del Rey and Champions League to Barca and Ajax respectively.

Boss Zinedine Zidane failed to make an immediate impact in terms of results when he returned to the club in March to replace Santiago Solari, but better times are now surely around the corner for Real, who won nine major honours under Zizu between 2015-2018, including three consecutive Champions League crowns.

Zidane will have benefited hugely from a full pre-season to assess his squad and welcome a raft of exciting new faces to the Bernabeu. Eden Hazard’s £90m move from Chelsea is clearly the marquee signing of the bunch which also includes Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, Rodrygo and Ferland Mendy. All could play a part at Balaidos this Saturday, barring the latter, who is struggling with a hamstring injury.

It will likely take some time for Zidane to blood his new crop and find his best XI, and although it’s important not to read too much into pre-season form, results indicate that the Frenchman is someway off getting things right and bringing back some defensive stability to the side. Los Merengues were beaten by the likes of Bayern Munich, Tottenham and Atletico Madrid over the summer – the latter contest ending 3-7 in favour of their cross-city adversaries.

Saturday’s opponents Celta Vigo have had a fairly quiet summer by all accounts – and that’s probably just what the doctor ordered for Celestes, who will be looking to stabilise this term and re-establish themselves as a mid-table team.

Fran Escriba steered the club away from the threat of relegation after a woeful run under former boss Miguel Cardoso, and they will take confidence into this weekend’s encounter after finishing the season strongly – particularly at Balaidos where they accrued 13 points from their final five outings. Star striker Maxi Gomez has departed for Valencia over the summer, however Santi Mina has moved in the opposite direction to re-join Celta after a four year stint at Mestalla.

Valencia vs Real Sociedad

Estadio Mestalla, Valencia

Saturday, 17-08-2019 @8pm

This is one of the standout fixtures on match day one in La Liga, as Copa Del Rey holders Valencia welcome Real Sociedad to the Mestalla. The visitors have been mid-table fodder over the past few seasons but notoriously raise their game against the best teams in the league, so this should be a decent opening test for a Los Che side on the up.

Valencia still have a long way to go to be considered genuine title challengers, but they’re undoubtedly the team with the most momentum behind them going into the new La Liga campaign.

They won their last three league fixtures last term (scoring 11 goals in the process) to secure Champions League football once again, before overcoming Barcelona 2-1 at Benito Villamarin to lift their eighth Copa Del Rey trophy.

Another top four finish will be the main expectation for Los Che this term as well as making a more significant impact in Europe, but there’s enough reason to believe that Valencia can upset the established top three of Barca, Atleti and Real – with the latter pair of those teams going through rebuilding phases.

On the contrary, Valencia have a settled squad improving all the time under boss Marcelino and their first XI is now arguably stronger following the additions of Uruguayan striker Maxi Gomez and experienced Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen over the summer. Both look set to make their debuts for Los Che at Mestalla this weekend – and the former will be relishing the prospect of taking on Sociedad having scored in each of his last four games against the Basque outfit when in Celta Vigo colours.

After a poor first half to 2018/19 under Asier Garitano, Real Sociedad picked up after Christmas following the appointment of Imanol Aguacil and posted three wins in their last four games to finish a respectable 9th. Txuri-urdinak supporters will be hopeful that Aguacil is the right man to take the club forward this term and Europa League qualification will be the likely aim.

Sociedad have a good recent record on the whole at Mestalla, winning five of their last eight visits here, however that stat should probably be overlooked considering the rapid improvement of the hosts over the past two seasons. And Valencia have dominated the head to head during that period, winning three and drawing one of the last four meetings between the teams.

Beaten just twice at Mestalla in 2018/19, Valencia are quickly restoring their home ground to the fortress it once was, and Sociedad know that they will need something special to claim all three points on the opening day.

Mallorca vs Eibar

Iberoster Estadi, Mallorca

Saturday, 17-08-2019 @9pm

Football purists will welcome the return of former Cup Winners Cup finalists Mallorca to La Liga, but nowhere near as much as Los Bermellones supporters who have suffered six long seasons in the doldrums. The club finally kicked their way out of Segunda last term via the Play-offs and Estadi de Son Moix should be bouncing this weekend as the Balearic Islanders welcome an Eibar side who they’ll be hoping to replicate in the seasons ahead.

Eibar have firmly established themselves as a solid La Liga outfit since gaining their promotion to the top tier in 2013/14, so this fixture provides Mallorca with a decent marker as to where they currently stand. For the visitors, the game offers a good opportunity to make a winning start on the road after gaining just two wins from 19 away matches in the 2018/19 campaign.

On the basis of their overall performances and record in Segunda last term, it looks like Mallorca will face an uphill struggle in the months ahead. Whilst they managed to grind their way into a Play-off spot in the final weeks before overcoming Deportivo La Coruna in the final, they did only accrue 69 points from their 42 league games in total – a tally 18 shy of champions Osasuna.

Boss Vicente Moreno has had scarce funds to play with over the summer to bolster his squad, so as things stand Los Bermellones look one of the weakest teams in the league on paper. Nevertheless, they did boast a formidable record at Estadi Son Moix last season in winning 15 of their 21 starts, so Moreno’s side will be quietly optimistic that they can make life difficult for a lot of the teams who’ll make the trip to Palma this season.

And Mallorca can realistically target some points against Eibar who posted one of the worst away records in La Liga last season. Los Armeros won just two and lost nine of their away fixtures – cancelling out all of their excellent work at Ipurua Municipal Stadium. Whilst 12th place represented a solid campaign all in all for the Basque outfit, boss Jose Luis Mendilibar will demand more from his charges on their travels this time around.

Eibar appear to have been weakened over the summer though following the departures of Joan Jordan and Ruben Pena to Seville and Villarreal respectively, so it’s difficult to envisage Los Armeros making much progress this season.

As ever, it’s tricky to assess how newly promoted teams are going to fare on the opening day of the campaign – particularly when home advantage can be considered a significant leveller. Eibar are probably the better team, but their travel sickness and Mallorca’s strong home form level the scales.

Leganes vs Osasuna

Estadio Municipal de Butarque, Leganes

Saturday, 17-08-2019 @10pm

Osasuna return to La Liga this Saturday evening after two seasons in the second tier and Jagoba Arrasate’s side will be confident that they can make a positive start to life back in the top flight when they square off against Leganes at Estadio Municipal de Butarque.

After romping their way to the Segunda title by a wide margin last term, Los Rojillos look easily the best equipped of the newly promoted teams to make an impact this season and the bookmakers appear to have significantly underestimated their chances for this weekend’s encounter against a Leganes side that petered out tamely towards the end of 2018/19.

The basic statistics show that it was Osasuna’s ruthless home form that spearheaded their championship success last term, and Jagoba Arrasate’s charges indeed accrued 59 of their total 87 point haul at El Sadar – winning 19 of their 21 matches and drawing two.

However, whilst they posted a mixed record of seven wins, seven draws and seven defeats on the road, they only lost one of their final ten fixtures, winning five. As the season wore on, Osasuna got better and better and their level of play on the road began nearing the high standards which they consistently showed in front of their own supporters.

The likelihood is that Osasuna will again pick up the majority of their points at home this term as the quality of opposition rises steeply, but they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand outside of El Sadar.

And that’s certainly the case on the opening night this Saturday, when they take on a Leganes side who won just one of their last eight La Liga fixtures last season and just one of their final six outings at home.

Overall, Lega enjoyed an improved campaign in 2018/19 to finish 14th after consecutive 17th place finishes, but they’re hardly a team to get stuck into at short odds early this season based on how they ended the last so tamely. Transfer business for the Madrid outfit has also been underwhelming during the summer.

Mauricio Pellegrino’s men picked up their fair share of points overall at Estadio Municipal de Butarque in 2018/19, however they did fail to win 12 of their 19 home games. That makes their odds of around evens look skinny here against an Osasuna team with plenty of momentum on their side.

Villareal vs Granada 

Estadio de la Ceramica, Villareal

Saturday, 17-08-2019 @10pm

Despite a run to the quarter-finals of the Europa League, 2018/19 has to go down as an extremely poor season for Villarreal, who finished outside the La Liga top six for the first time since their promotion back to the top flight in 2012/13. Only a late surge of form spared the club from a shock relegation, and El Submarino Amarillo must now look to re-establish themselves as a solid mid-table side at the least over the coming months.

That progress should be achievable with Javier Calleja at the helm, as the 41 year-old ultimately did a good job to rescue the club since taking over from Luis Garcia at the end of January. Calleja has focused on shoring things up in defence over the summer, and the additions of Ruben Pena, Alberto Moreno and Raul Albiol certainly give Villarreal much more depth in that department.

Nonetheless, the club have lost key attacking asset Pablo Fornals to West Ham United and are yet to replace the influential 23 year-old with just a couple of weeks to go before the transfer deadline. Consequently, Calleja’s side seem pretty light up front and there’s a need for the likes of Gerardo Moreno and Karl Toko Ekambi to really step up to the plate this season.

Getting off to a winning start at home this weekend against newly promoted opposition is imperative for Villarreal to set the right tone for the campaign ahead and the bookies make El Submarino Amarillo strong favourites to land the spoils.

Granada will have other ideas after securing promotion with a bit to spare last season, although Diego Martinez’ charges will have to step up markedly if they’re to be competitive week to week in La Liga – particularly on their travels.

Nazaries won just five of their 21 away games in 2018/19, and it’s likely that they’ll pick up the majority of their points at Nuevo Los Carmenes where they lost just twice last season. Martinez has been able to bring in a handful of summer transfers including veteran striker Roberto Soldado, but the 38 year-old will largely be relying on the key players who did the job for him last term.

It remains to be seen whether Granada can hold their own, but we don’t fancy them to get anything in this weekend’s opener. Nazaries have a terrible record at Estadio de la Ceramica having lost on all of their previous five visits and they have failed to net in the last four of those encounters.

Deportivo Alaves vs Levante

Estadio de Mendizorroza, Vitoria-Gasteiz

Saturday, 18-08-2019 @6pm

This Sunday’s tea-time kick-off on the first weekend of the La Liga season comes from Estadio de Mendizorrotza, as Deportivo Alaves take on Levante. After mid-table finishes last term, both of these clubs will be hoping to make progress in 2019/20, and both will view this opening fixture as winnable. Alaves have dominated the head to head in recent times with four victories from the last five encounters; however El Glorioso ended the last campaign in terrible form and look set to find things tough this term.

Indeed, Alaves were challenging amongst the European spots during the first half of last season, but results rapidly took a turn for the worse. El Glorioso won just one and lost six of their last ten league matches and eventually wound up 11th in the table.

That would’ve probably been considered a decent finishing position at the start of last season, but the manner of their drop off was quite alarming and then manager Abelardo decided to walk in May. Alaves have welcomed former Real Sociedad coach Asier Garitano to Mendizorrotza for the new campaign, a questionable appointment considering how badly the 49 year-old fared in his short spell at Anoeta.

Levante also began last season promisingly before tailing off at the start of 2019, however they did end the campaign on a relatively high note with ten points accrued from their final five fixtures.

Granotas’ squad looks in better shape than Alaves heading into the opening weekend after signing Ruben Vezo and Sergio Leon from Valencia and Real Betis respectively over the summer, but eight defeats from their last 11 La Liga away matches in 2018/19 is rather off-putting for potential backers here – as is their recent head to head against the Basque outfit.

Espanyol vs Sevilla

RCDE Stadium, Barcelona

Saturday, 18-08-2019 @8pm

Sunday’s La Liga clash at RCDE Stadium sees the sides that finished 7th and 6th respectively last term face-off, as David Gallego’s Espanyol entertain Julian Lopetegui’s Sevilla. It’s the visitors who have enjoyed success in this fixture over the past two seasons after accruing three wins and a draw from the last four league meetings, however there are reasons to believe that there could be a different outcome this time around, despite Los Rojiblancos being the bookies’ favourites to land the spoils.

Espanyol may have finished six points behind Sevilla in La Liga last term, but Periquitos will have marked the season down as a huge success unlike their forthcoming opponents. A mid-table finish was the realistic ambition for the Barcelona based club, however they strung five wins and three draws together at the end of the campaign to exceed those expectations and finish 7th – qualifying for the Europa League.

Manager Rubi subsequently left the club to join Real Betis which was a massive blow, although it’s been a case of so far so good for Periquitos under new boss David Gallego, who was given the job after previously overseeing the B Team. Espanyol returned to competitive action early this season to take up their spot in the Europa League preliminary rounds, and to date they’ve made light work of Icelandic side Stjarnan and Swiss outfit Lucerne, winning 7-1 and 6-0 respectively on aggregate to seal their place in the main draw.

It remains to be seen how well Espanyol can handle the Europa League and La Liga together once both competitions are fully up to speed, but for now their early start could give them an advantage in terms of sharpness during the opening rounds of the domestic campaign. Periquitos are a team that shouldn’t be underestimated, and whilst they’ve lost defender Mario Hermoso to Atleti during the summer, they’ve kept their other stars and recruited well to bring in Fernando Calero and Matias Vargas from Valladolid and Velez Sarsfield.

Sevilla meanwhile have experienced plenty of change during the summer after another season of underachievement in 2018/19. The Andalusian’s missed out on Champions League qualification again and suffered Quarter-Final / Last 16 exits in the Copa Del Rey and Europa League respectively. Joaquin Caparros held the fort through to the end of the campaign after Pablo Machin’s dismissal in March, but it’s now former Spain and Real Madrid coach Julian Lopetegui who takes over the reins at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

And Lopetegui has overseen a huge overhaul in squad personnel, with the likes of Ben-Yedder, Pablo Sarabia, Luis Muriel and Quincy Promes all leaving the club. The list of incoming names reads fairly well with Lucas Ocampos, Jules Kounde and Rony Lopes being the standout signings, but it will surely take time for Sevilla’s new crop to adapt – both to each other and Lopetegui’s tactics.

Real Betis vs Real Valladolid

Estádio Benito Villamarin, Sevilla

Sunday, 18-08-2019 @10pm

Despite a decent run to the semi-finals of the Copa Del Rey, last season has to be marked down as a disappointment overall for Real Betis. After qualifying for Europe in 2017/18, Los Verdiblancos could only manage a 10th place finish in La Liga last term whilst they failed to make an impact in the Europa League – succumbing to French side Rennes in the last 32. The club unsurprisingly parted ways with manager Quique Setien in May, replacing him with Rubi who did a terrific job in guiding Espanyol into Europe.

The fact Rubi has deserted Espanyol for Betis after his good work speaks volumes for the potential of the club, and a return to European football has to be the aim for the Andalusians this term. They have attracted some good names through the door this summer in the shape of Nabil Fekir and Juanmi from Lyon and Real Sociedad respectively, however star man Giovani Lo Celso has joined Tottenham Hotspur whilst Junior Firpo has been snapped up by Barcelona.

If Betis are to achieve a place in the top seven, they’ll need to win far more games at home than they did in 2018/19 (just eight victories from 19 starts at Benito Villamarin) and this weekend’s opener against Valladolid should be regarded as a must three points considering their opponents finished 16th last term.

That’s not saying Valladolid didn’t do well in their own right though – they secured promotion to La Liga via the Play-offs in 2017/18 and boss Sergio did a fantastic job to keep them safe in the top flight for another season with limited resources available. It’s the same story again this time around for Pucela and they look set to miss defender Fernando Calero who has signed for Espanyol.

As mentioned, Betis were inconsistent in Andalusia last season and lost six matches in total – including a 0-1 defeat to this weekend’s opponents back in October. Their form also deteriorated towards the end of the season and three of those six home losses came in their last half dozen outings at Benito Villamarin. Valladolid meanwhile managed to avoid defeat in 11 of their 19 away fixtures, which arguably makes them overpriced at odds-against to get something from this matchday one clash.

Atletico Madrid vs Getafe

Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid

Sunday, 18-08-2019 @11pm

Match day one of the new La Liga season draws to a close at Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday evening, as 2018/19 runners-up Atletico Madrid entertain a Getafe side that just missed out on Champions League qualification last term. On that basis alone, the visitors should make life tough for Atleti in this opening fixture, however past meetings between the pair suggest that Los Rojiblancos are highly likely to come out on top to register their first victory of the campaign.

Indeed, Atleti are unbeaten in their last 13 matches against Getafe, winning 12 (including a pair of 2-0 successes last term), and they have kept a clean sheet in all of those games. That’s an incredible statistic, which also burdens Getafe with the worst record against a single side in La Liga history. It’s quite clear then that Jose Bordalas’ charges have got some task on their hands this weekend.

Nonetheless, all of the pressure will be on the hosts to get a result and three points on the board as they bid to mount a serious title challenge this season. Diego Simeone’s side can’t be given too much stick for their effort in La Liga last term after accruing 76 points from their 38 fixtures, however, they obviously lacked the required gears week to week to keep pace with Barcelona, who in the end triumphed by a cosy nine-point margin.

In the cup competitions, Atleti flattered to deceive, losing on away goals in the last 16 of the Copa Del Rey to Girona, before blowing a two-goal lead against Juventus at the same stage of the Champions League.

Madrid’s performance overall in 2018/19 signalled that it was time for a few changes, and there has certainly been plenty of moving and shaking over the summer.

Atleti sold Antoine Griezmann to Barca for £117m, whilst also cashing in on the likes of Rodri, Gelson Martins and Lucas Hernandez. Defensive stalwarts Diego Godin and Juanfran have also left the club after some stellar years with Los Rojiblancos. In their place come Mario Hermoso, Kieran Trippier and Felipe, whilst Marco Llorente has travelled across the city from the Santiago Bernabeu. The marquee signing though has undoubtedly been Joao Felix, who will make his highly anticipated competitive debut for the club this Sunday after a £113m move from Benfica.

Opponents Getafe have unsurprisingly been far more humble in their summer dealings with 32-year-old striker Enric Gallego the only noteworthy addition to Jose Bordalas’ squad, but that shouldn’t stop the club from having another successful campaign. It will be interesting though to see how they juggle La Liga with their Europa League commitments, as it’s hard to envisage them making an impact in both competitions.

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