MADRID (AP) — Despite offseason fireworks around Lionel Messi’s future, the Spanish soccer league’s new season features a low-profile opening weekend as top teams are still resting from their recent European competitions.
When all clubs do return, Barcelona and Messi likely will attract most of the attention after the Argentina great tried to leave but then changed his mind to avoid a legal battle with the Catalan club. Messi’s first appearance won’t happen until the end of the month as Barcelona’s matches in the first and second rounds were postponed.
Atlético Madrid and Europa League champion Sevilla also won’t start until the third round, while Real Madrid — eliminated before the Champions League quarterfinals — begins its Spanish title defense in the second round.
The feature match of the first round will be the Valencia city derby Sunday between Valencia and Levante, two teams that finished mid-table last season. Valencia was closer to the top of the standings at times but collapsed toward the end. The expectations aren’t much better this season after it lost some key players, including striker Rodrigo to Leeds, forward Ferran Torres to Manchester City and playmaker Dani Parejo to Villarreal.
Villarreal is the highest-finishing team from last season playing in the first round. It finished fifth in 2019-20 and is one of the clubs generating high expectations with the addition of Parejo, young Japan forward Takefusa Kubo and midfielder Francis Coquelin. They will all be under new coach Unai Emery, who arrived after stints with Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain.
“Starting on the right foot will be key,” new Villarreal goalkeeper Gero Rulli said. “Seeing ourselves at the top from the beginning will give us confidence and will allow us to work without pressure. It will be a difficult and competitive season, but we have a great team and we want to reach all of our goals.”
Real Sociedad, sixth last season, will start at Valladolid on Sunday before hosting Real Madrid in the second round.
Madrid is keeping its base from last season, adding a few players who had been out on loans and relying mostly on veterans Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos. It sold James Rodríguez to Everton and it still hopes to get Gareth Bale to transfer out. Rodríguez and Bale did not play many minutes under coach Zinedine Zidane at the end of last season.
Atlético Madrid is making few changes after having revamped itself a year ago. It will hope for a breakthrough season from Portugal youngster João Félix, who failed to meet expectations in his first year with the club as Antoine Griezmann’s replacement.
Sevilla, boosted by a record sixth Europa League title, will try to improve from its fourth-place finish in the league last season. It brought in veteran midfielder Ivan Rakitic from Barcelona and youngster Óscar Rodríguez from Real Madrid.
Entering the opening weekend, the big news was a dispute between the league and the Spanish soccer federation over whether the first game could be played Friday night as wanted by the league. In the end, the federation had its way, forcing the Granada-Athletic Bilbao game to be moved to Saturday. The decision was made late Wednesday, less than two days before the league’s scheduled kickoff.
Barcelona is coming off its first season without a significant title since 2007-08, but it got to keep Messi despite the player’s desire to leave. He will stay but had made it clear he wanted to depart. Club president Josep Bartomeu promised profound changes and brought in coach Ronald Koeman to replace Quique Setién after the team’s embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Koeman arrived saying his project would revolve around Messi, but he didn’t plan on using some key players such as Arturo Vidal, Samuel Umtiti and Luis Suárez. They are all still with the squad, though, awaiting a possible transfer.
One of the promoted teams this season is Elche, which would have started against Barcelona in the first round. Huesca returns to its second season in the top tier, while Cádiz is back after a 14-year absence.
The league had hoped to have fans back at the stadiums this season but matches will still be played without spectators as Spain struggles with a new surge in coronavirus cases.
Teams will still be allowed to make five substitutions in each match, as was the case when the league resumed after the stoppage last season.
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