In line with the recent European league tradition to kick off the maiden opening fixture on a Friday, the 2017-18 La Liga season Santander kicked off on August 18, 2017 with Deportivo Alaves traveling to Madrid to take on locals CD Leganes. The home side got the better of their guests with one goal to nil.
This rather uneventful match spelled the start of a very long “opening weekend”, one that stretched well into the week and ended on Tuesday. There were no real surprises on the first weekend, except, perhaps, seeing the 2014 champions Atletico Madrid’s draw 2-2 with La Liga newcomers, Girona, a setback that Atletico recovered well from, subsequently. Of the other big names, Valencia got off to a slow but safe start beating Las Palmas one goal to nil at home, Barcelona managed to beat Betis convincingly by two goals to nil, while their archenemy Real Madrid thumped Deportivo La Coruna by three goals to nil, and that, too, without Ronaldo in the side.
Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, had sat out the start of the La Liga season after being handed a controversial five-match ban for shoving the referee during Real’s Supercopa win against Barcelona on August 13, 2017. Ronaldo was already on a yellow card for taking his shirt off after scoring in the first half, when he was booked again in the second for diving and was sent off. He subsequently nudged the referee in the back as a protest, which is what landed him the five-match ban. Although Ronaldo and co did not believe the incident to be deserving of that lengthy a ban, the verdict from the RFEF given on August 14, 2017, read: “On the first account Real Madrid player Cristiano Ronaldo will be suspended for one game after receiving two yellow cards, the first for taking off his jersey while celebrating his goal and the second for simulation. The club have also been fined 350 euros and the player 800 euros. On the second account, Cristiano Ronaldo has been banned for another four games for infraction of article 96 of the disciplinary code, with a 1,400 euro fine for the club and a 3,005 euro fine for the player.”
Needless to say the “meagre” fines would not put a dent in either Real or Ronaldo’s bank accounts, but the suspension surely did dent their fortunes substantially. Despite having an excellent pre-season campaign which saw them winning the UEFA Super Cup by defeating Manchester United and the Supercopa by defeating archenemies Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate over two legs, Real Madrid failed to replicate the same all-destructive form once the league kicked off, largely due to Ronaldo’s absence.
Although they got off to a good start against Deportivo, Madrid followed it up with two back-to-back draws against Valencia - 2-2 - and mid-tablers Levante - 1-1. They subsequently recovered, beating Real-Sociedad by three goals to one on September 17, however, three days later - on the day that Ronaldo returned - they slumped to a loss and their first goalless fixture since April 2016 - after 73 games - and lost to Betis in the League for the first time since 1998. Real’s supporters might argue that the defending champions were unlucky in the game, having struck the post twice and created a lot of chances otherwise, however, the lack of a killer instinct evidently impaled the fixture for the home side that night. The five-match ban had seemingly taken at least a slight toll on the reigning Ballon D’Or winner, which was not good news for Real. Further bad news followed as Madrid lost defender Marcelo to injury - a huge addition to a list that already contained the names of the likes of Benzema, Kroos, Kovacic, Vallejo, and Theo Hernandez.
Three more days later, however, despite a long list of injury concerns, Real managed to return to winning ways beating the rock-bottom Alaves, who has not managed to score a single point in six games in the league, by two goals to one. The victory saw Real drag itself up to sixth in the table, already 7 points behind leaders Barcelona.
The Catalan side, on the other hand, under the leadership of new manager Ernesto Valverde, got off to a blazing start in the new season, winning all six of their fixtures to date. Unlike Real, Barcelona very much have their talisman, Lionel Messi, intact and firing on all cylinders. Messi - thus far the leading scorer in the league - seems to have gladly accepted the task of filling the gaping hole left by the unceremonious and sudden departure of Neymar from the side, having scored one brace, one hat-trick, and a four-goal haul in the league, and a brace in the Champions League, seeing Barcelona to the top of each of the two tables. Clearly in a league of their own, at the moment.
With Barcelona flying off to a great start, and Real having to deal with the unexpected absence of Ronaldo early on in the season - something they evidently had not prepared themselves too well for - fans of La Liga seem to be in for a very long and intense season. Barcelona do not really need to change a thing, however, they do need to make sure that with one of MSN now gone, they have enough depth in the squad to cover for the remaining two should the need arise.
Real, on the other hand, need to find a strategy to struggle through their long list of injuries and to devise a means for firing up Ronaldo again - in the league at least. It is also, perhaps, a good time for some introspection for Real: despite being the defending champions and the best team in Europe for the past couple of seasons, why do they not have enough depth in their side to make up for the loss of one Cristiano Ronaldo? Are the likes of Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, Casemiro, Gareth Bale, and Toni Kroos - all big names - enough to make up for one man’s performance? Or, better yet, the question should be: why weren’t they? While Barcelona had Messi alone cover up for Neymar’s absence, why could Real’s entire attack not manage to do the same for Ronaldo’s absence? The sooner they find the answers to these questions, the better it would be for Madridista’s nerves around the globe.
While both archrivals are off to the perfect starts after two rounds in the Champions League, there is already a seven-point gap between Barcelona at the top and sixth-placed Real Madrid, after six matches in La Liga-with Barca winning all six of theirs, and Real only managing half as many.