By James Goyder
For the past few years La Liga has been all about two teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Unless you happen to be a fan of one of the other 18 clubs which make up Spain’s top division the only real question of interest is which of these sides will win the league and what will happen in El Classico.
With the Spanish season only two weeks old there are already encouraging signs that this time around things might be a little bit different. The strongest indication of that came at the Nou Camp last Saturday when Barcelona were humbled by the appropriately named Hercules.
Barcelona hit the ground running with a 3-0 win away to Racing Santander on the opening day of the season and would have been confident of giving their goal difference another boost with a big scoring win against the newly promoted side.
Hercules, and in particular Nelson Valdez, had other ideas. The Paraguayan striker scored both the games goals to make it a debut to remember. By contrast Barcelonas latest signing, Javier Mascherano, did not make the most auspicious of starts. The €21 million midfielder was substituted at half time.
Pep Guardiola left Spanish World Cup winners Carlos Puyol, Sergi Busquets, Pedro and Xavi on the bench. There is a fine line between confidence and complacency and in hindsight the Barcelona manager will probably feel that he crossed it with his team selection.
Barcelona did not just drop three points at home to Hercules, they also lost a little of the aura of invincibility which has surrounded them in recent seasons. The newly promoted minnows have set a certain standard. If they can emerge victorious from the Nou Camp than so can anyone in La Liga and Barcelona might find their home games getting a little more competitive after this.
While Real Madrid have made a slightly stuttering start, with only one goal to show from their opening two games, local rivals Atletico Madrid have got off to a flyer. They followed up their opening weekend thrashing of Sporting Gijon with a very credible away win against Athletic Bilbao. Fresh from his World Cup heroics, Diego Forlan (photo) already has three goals to his name and Atletico Madrid could well be a force to be reckoned with in La Liga.
Valencia looked something of a spent force after the departures of David Villa and David Silva but they have defied expectations by winning their opening two games. A 3-1 win away to Malaga was a solid start and was followed up with a workmanlike performance at home to Racing Santander which saw Dutch defender Hedwiges Maduro claim the only goal of the game.
It is far too soon to write off Real Madrid and Mourinho’s men claimed their first win of the season with an underwhelming 1-0 win over Osasuna. It is not sort of the fare which the crowd at Santiago Bernabeu have come to expect but this new look Real Madrid side are very much a work in progress. As the manager becomes more familiar with his new surroundings the results and performances will probably improve.
Neither does one defeat signal the demise of Barcelona. Lessons will be learned, particularly with regard to the dangers of fielding an under strength side, and Guardiola still has probably the best set of players in club football at his disposal.
Real Madrid and Barcelona remain the teams to beat but the early season exploits of Valencia, Atletico Madrid and heroic Hercules are making La Liga a much more interesting place.