For a brief moment on Sunday evening it appeared there may be hope for those seeking to restore some sort of parity to Spanish football. Chori Castro had just fired in a ninth minute leveller for Real Sociedad against Barcelona and all of a sudden, the stranglehold enjoyed by the Catalans and their bitter rivals Real Madrid seemed a little less secure.
Unfortunately for the Basques, that hope was short-lived as Lionel Messi burst into life. By half-time, the visitors were three goals behind and Barcelona were on their way to a resounding 5-1 triumph – providing the perfect start for Tito Vilanova in his first competitive game as Barca Coach.
Normal service resumed in La Liga then, although not quite. In the capital, the reigning champions were frustrated by Valencia – despite Jose Mourinho’s side dominating much of the game. It was a tough opener for the Portuguese Coach and a somewhat disjointed performance. However, there seemed enough on display to suggest the title will be heading to one of two places yet again this season.
The clash at the Bernabeu was the standout tie of the first round, yet understandably, most eyes were on the Camp Nou to see how Barcelona would react to losing both the most successful Coach in their club history, and their three-year grip on the title.
As it proved, the reaction was overwhelming. In a League won and lost over a handful of games, the Catalans struck the first, albeit minor, blow. While Mourinho’s side huffed and puffed in Madrid, Barcelona looked fresh and hungry.
Of course, many would argue it was the perfect opponent to begin the post-Pep era – after all, La Real have lost 14 consecutive trips to the Camp Nou, but, there was also some pressure on Vilanova as he looked to fire the first salvo in what is sure to be a hard-fought war of attrition with Mourinho.
Continuity has been mentioned most often when discussing the appointment of the 42-year-old. Nonetheless, Vilanova still has to make the transition from man in the shadows to man in the spotlight. Inheriting a side as talented as this makes things easier of course, but there is still work to be done and that work got off to a solid start on Sunday.
The performance was confident, the passing crisp, and the movement rejuvenated – Lionel Messi in particular looked bright, no doubt helped by his first full summer off in five years. The goalscoring return of David Villa was also a significant boost for the club and arguably the highlight of the evening.
The real test now for Barcelona comes on the road. Imperious at home last term, Guardiola’s team stuttered on their travels and dropped far too many points last year and it was a flaw which ultimately proved fatal.
However, and unfortunately for those hoping to see a challenge to Spain’s big two this season, the duopoly will continue – and arguably become ever-more entrenched. Valencia finished a massive 39 points behind the champions last season and have lost a number of key players over the summer, while Malaga’s financial meltdown sees them tumble out of contention after briefly offering the hope of a realistic challenge to the hegemony.
Fabrice Olinga did provide some respite for Manuel Pellegrini in becoming La Liga’s youngest ever goalscorer on Sunday, however, the long term future looks far less positive for the Andaluz club.
Elsewhere, Athletic Bilbao seem ready to implode and traditional challengers Sevilla are going through a phase of rebuilding. In reality, the battle for the rest of La Liga will again be focused on third place, and that is likely to be fought between Valencia and Atletico Madrid, who began with a draw at Levante.
The truncated start to the new campaign means there are three games still to be played, nevertheless, there is little doubt the first weekend of the 2012-13 season belongs to Tito Vilanova and Barcelona. With the pressure on, the new Coach has thrown down the gauntlet to Jose Mourinho in the first exchanges of the new campaign. The real fun begins on Thursday with the first Clasico of the season.