La Liga pins hopes on the unpredictable as Spanish football returns without heavyweights
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La Liga begins on Saturday without its top teams and still without fans but with hope that an unusual summer could lead to a season of surprises.
Lionel Messi has stayed but will be playing a friendly against Segunda B's Gimnastic Tarragona on Saturday because Barcelona do not start their league campaign under new coach Ronald Koeman until the third round.
Barca, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have been granted extra time off, meaning the top four from last term will all be absent on the first weekend, when only seven fixtures are taking place.
Yet more than the heavyweights, who will take to the field later this month, the league will miss the fans, whose absence might be felt even more keenly at the start of a new season than during the desperate attempt to finish the last one.
At Cadiz, who are back in the top flight after 14 years away, the stands at the Carranza would have been bouncing, revelling in a new beginning against Osasuna.
Instead they will be empty, and there will also be silence at the league's curtain-raiser at Ipurua, where Eibar are continuing their own miracle by embarking on their seventh consecutive year in the top flight, at home to Celta Vigo.
La Liga's plan had been to stagger the return of supporters through the autumn, building up stadium capacities from, at first, 30 per cent through to full grounds some time in the new year.
But a worrying rise in coronavirus cases in Spain means those plans have been shelved, with the league awaiting better news from the government before taking any steps forward.
"I believe that to see stadiums like before it can only happen with a vaccine," said La Liga president Javier Tebas on Monday. "I hope it can be in January or February. Several governments have already announced it and that would be the beginning of the end of this bad dream."
While the pandemic may be beyond their control, La Liga and the Spanish Football Federation have hardly helped an already slow start by creating further chaos over fixtures.
- Stuttering start -
The original opening game between Granada and Athletic Bilbao, scheduled for Friday night, has been moved to Saturday, an announcement made on Wednesday night, 48 hours before the planned kick-off.
It continues a long-running dispute between the organisations over scheduling, which a judge in Madrid is due to settle on October 6.
Yet a stuttering start to the season may lead to something more promising as La Liga's traditional duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid appears open to challenge.
Both were exposed in the Champions League last season, with Madrid's convincing defeat by Manchester City and Barca's humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich raising doubts about their quality.
With a new coach and still recovering from Messi's attempt to leave, there are certainly no guarantees for Barca, whose rebuild may well see things get worse before they get better.
Madrid, meanwhile, are the reigning champions after dominating the sprint-finish in June and July but they have not yet added to an ageing squad.
The reduced spending of the traditionally wealthy clubs could level the field, with Atletico Madrid and Sevilla handed a chance to join the title race and those beneath them to break into the top four.
Villarreal, under the newly-appointed Unai Emery, and Real Betis, under Manuel Pellegrini, will be among those with European ambitions while Getafe, Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao could capitalise too.
At the other end of the table, Huesca and Elche join Cadiz as the newly-promoted sides focussed on survival, albeit unable to count on the levelling effect of their fans when at home to the big teams.
Floating in between are Valencia, whose selling spree this summer under an unpopular owner has prompted many to wonder if they will be contenders for the Champions League or for relegation.
With so much missing, La Liga is pinning its hopes on the unpredictable.
Eibar v Celta Vigo (1400), Granada v Athletic Bilbao (1630), Cadiz v Osasuna (1900)
Alaves v Real Betis (1200), Real Valladolid v Real Sociedad (1400), Villarreal v Huesca (1630), Valencia v Levante (1900)
© 2020 AFP