For the first time in a decade, the best clubs in Spain enter Week 1 chasing a La Liga title that doesn't belong to Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Instead, Atletico Madrid completed their improbable run to the Spanish league title in 2013-14 by holding off the two footballing powerhouses. The departures of Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois haven't done much to stop the momentum of Diego Simeone's side, after Atleti beat their cross-town rivals on Friday to win the Spanish Super Cup.
It used to be a two-club league with everyone else looking up at La Blaugrana and Los Blancos, but this season poses the opportunity for that to change. Atletico drew up the blueprint last season, so could this be the year that other talented clubs follow suit and seriously contend?
One thing is for sure—there are many names to watch as this La Liga season begins other than Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Here's a look at the La Liga table as Week 1 gets underway.
|Aug. 23||Malaga||1-0||Athletic Bilbao|
|Aug. 23||Granada||2-1||Deportivo la Coruna|
|Aug. 24||Eibar||1-0||Real Sociedad|
|Aug. 24||Celta Vigo||3-1||Getafe|
|Aug. 25||Real Madrid||2-0||Cordoba|
|Aug. 25||Rayo Vallecano||0-0||Atletico Madrid|
Note: Table and fixtures courtesy of ESPN FC
Week 1 Results
It will take a few months before any league table starts to take a true shape, but Saturday's opening matches of the La Liga season proved just how hotly-contested the middle of the table will be.
Malaga defeated last year's top-four finishers Athletic Bilbao at home 1-0 in the league's opening match that offered more twists and turns than most matches will offer throughout the season.
It was a player not owned by either club that made the difference on the scoreline, with Luis Alberto—loaned to Malaga from Liverpool—scoring a 35th-minute goal that proved to be the winner.
Malaga didn't gain three early points without some flare-ups, however. In the final minutes, both Duda and Vitorino Antunes earned red cards. Spectacularly, Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz came into the attack and headed in an equalizing goal that was disallowed due to a foul.
Down to just nine men, Malaga received quite the favor from the referee on the foul call. Football journalist Graham Ruthven summed it up the only way you can:
What an incredible sequence of decisions by the referee in the Malaga - Athletic game!— Graham Ruthven (@grahamruthven) August 23, 2014
Europa League winners Sevilla are on the shortlist of clubs that contend for the league's top spots, and they nearly got off to a strong start at home before a late Valencia equalizer ended things in a 1-1 draw.
Sevilla were the aggressors early at home, finally breaking through in the 44th minute off the foot of Aleix Vidal. They brought out all the stops defensively before committing one fateful lapse on a set piece.
Lucas Orban equalized for Valencia, sneaking free on a corner kick in the 88th minute to tie things up. After taking the life out of Sevilla's home crowd, the match was settled in a draw.
Granada had no such trouble closing out at home, defeating Deportivo La Coruna in their first match back in the top division, 2-1. The away side went in front early off a 20th-minute goal from Ivan Cavaleiro, but two second-half goals spurred Granada to a crucial three points.
The final match of Saturday's slate looked to be an easy home victory for Almeria to start the season, but an impossible equalizer in the 103rd minute allowed Espanyol to equalize and draw 1-1 on the road.
A bizarre power outage during the second half that halted play made it tough for Almeria late, after taking a lead early in the second half. The referees added 12 minutes of stoppage time, just enough for Espanyol to net the unlikely equalizer.
It was just the perfect ending for a wacky opening day, as football journalist James Sharif Feligha put best:
Espanyol equalize with the last kick of the game in the 102nd minute at Almeria. Concludes a crazy first day of the LaLiga season.— James Sharif Feligha (@jamesfeligha) August 23, 2014
It's beyond impossible to form any big analysis after one match of the league season, but some clubs must be careful to avoid slipping into a rut at the beginning of the season. Clubs like Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla will only regret their less than stellar early results if it leads to more struggles.
On the other side, starting out with three points can be crucial for clubs known to flirt with relegation—like Granada, who finished in 15th place last year but will start 2014-15 near the top of the table. Just as well, failing to close out a big win like in Almeria's case could doom their quest to stay in the top division.
On Monday, the two heavyweights from Madrid finally got kicked off with their La Liga campaigns after Friday's Spanish Super Cup tilt set things back a bit. But it was the Super Cup losers that prevailed Monday, while the winners were left with a demoralizing draw.
Real Madrid got things rolling with an easy three points against recently-promoted Cordoba, but it was far from convincing despite the 2-0 scoreline.
Karim Benzema put Los Blancos in front 30 minutes in, but the underdogs gave the Madrid defense fits as striker Mike Havenaar had his way in the attacking third. Once again, defensive lapses were of the norm for Real Madrid—an increasingly-apparent problem. And instead of burying their offensive chances, quality looks were going wide left and right.
Cristiano Ronaldo made things safe at the end with a strike from 30 yards out, wrapping up the victory that looked to be in question for much of the contest.
Despite earning all three points, spirits weren't high around the Santiago Bernabeu locker room coming off another shaky performance, Daniel Carvajal noted per the club's official account:
As for their Madrid neighbors, new Super Cup champions Atletico couldn't get the best of Rayo Vallecano and sputtered to a scoreless draw on the road.
Countless scoring opportunities came Mario Mandzukic's way, but he was unable to convert any of his many first-half looks. He was replaced in the second half after failing to convert any of his three shots.
Rayo started to take control and emerged as the aggressor late, but earning a near 60-percent possession advantage and eight total shots weren't enough to threaten a match doomed for a scoreless draw.
With one full weekend of the season in the books, it's never wise to look too much at all into the results. Only one of 38 league matches has been played, and it's a very, very long season.
With that said, Atletico Madrid cannot afford to make results like Monday's a normal occurrence if they are serious about defending their title from last year. Last year was somewhat of an exception, but Barcelona and Real Madrid won't leave many points on the table this season and Atletico cannot afford to fall too far behind.