Real Madrid’s Welsh forward Gareth Bale (L) celebrates his goal with Real Madrid’s Spanish defender Sergio Ramos during the Spanish league football match between Girona FC and Real Madrid CF at the Montilivi stadium in Girona on August 26, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Pau BARRENA CAPILLA
After learning who they must face in this season’s Champions League group stage, holders Real Madrid and rivals Barcelona sink their teeth into Liga opponents this weekend as the only sides to have won their first two games.
Routine wins over Getafe and Girona have ensured that Real, whose main Champions League threat in a mild Group A is Roma, did not suffer an early wobble as they embark on the post-Zinedine Zidane era with coach Julen Lopetegui.
Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona were likewise efficient if unspectacular in beating Alaves at home and then edging Valladolid away on a pitch that tore up as soon as the game began and sparked a league inquiry.
This weekend the leading pair and perennial favourites face what should be home banker wins.
Real meet modest neighbours Leganes on Saturday and on Sunday Barca host Huesca, a side with an away success under its belt from the opening day at Eibar.
The European champions for the 13th time were showered in plaudits at the Champions League draw in Monaco on Thursday with Croatian talisman Luka Modric elected UEFA Player of the year and Real players landing a full house of positional awards.
In one respect, Real will have entered calmer waters by kick-off. The departure of their biggest galactico sparked furious speculation that Real would buy another superstar in the transfer window that closes on Friday.
Instead the club added a not-so-new and not-very-famous face in striker Mariano Diaz, a product of the Real youth system, who was sold to Lyon last summer, for a reported eight million ($9.4 million) euros, scored 18 goals, and was bought back on Wednesday for 33 million euros.
“With the arrival of Mariano, the squad is fixed,” Lopetegui said as the 25-year-old Diaz was presented to the media on Friday. “I don’t believe in movement at the last minute.”
The choice of the low-profile Diaz is perhaps a signal to another ex-Lyon player, Karim Benzema, that Real are prepared to make him the focal point of their attack.
The veteran striker, exiled from the French squad that won the World Cup, has started with three goals in three matches after hitting only five in 32 La Liga matches last season, giving the impression he has been liberated without Ronaldo’s dominating presence alongside him.
“I’ve been here for 10 years and I’m still working for the team, I want to score a lot of goals and help the team win titles,” Benzema said after hitting two last Sunday at Girona.
The biggest arrival in Madrid this summer has been an attacker who did collect a World Cup winner’s medal in the summer, Thomas Lemar, who has joined Atletico for a club record 75 million euros from Monaco.
The winger has already struck up a promising understanding with Atletico’s established French striker Antoine Griezmann.
“The closer he is to the opposing penalty area, the more dangerous he is,” manager Diego Simeone said of his new recruit.
Atletico need to be more dangerous away to Celta Vigo on Saturday after scoring only once in each of their first two games.
Dembele showing worth
The man in form at Barcelona is also a French attacker, Ousmane Dembele, who is beginning to look like a player worth the 147 million euros Barcelona paid Borussia Dortmund last summer.
After arriving, he promptly tore a hamstring. Further injuries meant he only appeared 17 times last season. But he has started every game this season and hit the winning goals in the Spanish Supercup against Sevilla and in La Liga at Valladolid.
“We expect a lot from him, absolutely,” said coach Ernesto Valverde.
Friday (all times GMT)
Getafe v Real Valladolid (1800), Eibar v Real Sociedad (1800), Villarreal v Girona (2000)
Rayo Vallecano v Athletic Bilbao – postponed, Celta Vigo v Atletico Madrid (1630), Real Madrid v Leganes (1845)
Levante v Valencia (0900), Alaves v Espanyol (1415), Barcelona v Huesca (1630), Real Betis v Sevilla (1845)