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Aug 26, 2014

Five things we learned in La Liga

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti praised Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo's goals after a 2-0 win over Cordoba.

Each week we will take a look at five things we learned from the weekend of La Liga action. With Real Madrid and Barcelona winning, Atletico Madrid's draw leaves them trailing already.

1. Super Cup double-date doesn't help

Before last Tuesday's Spanish Supercopa first leg, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone was in typically forthright form. "It is something more economic than real this Spanish Supercopa," he said. "To play it over two legs does not make sense, even if TV is paying."

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti is much more polite about those who pay the bills, but he did say after his side's underwhelming 2-0 win over newly promoted on Cordoba that his team had been tired after playing the intense and aggressive Atletico twice in the past week.

A bored Bernabeu was already grumbling by halftime, with whistles directed at various times at club captain Iker Casillas, defender Alvaro Arbeloa and even Ancelotti himself when goal scorer Karim Benzema was replaced with midfielder Sami Khedira at 1-0 up. Those paying customers probably would not accept Ancelotti's "tiredness" explanation, but the Italian did have a point.

A few hours later, Atletico were hanging on at the end to get a 0-0 draw at neighbours Rayo Vallecano. Los Colchoneros won the Supercopa battle against Madrid, but the exertions required contributed largely to Simeone's side falling two points off the pace at the top already.

2. Mascherano place still unsure

Javier Mascherano did not have a good season last year at centre-back for Barcelona, as he himself admitted regularly towards the end of the campaign. Mascherano was then outstanding at the World Cup for Argentina, dominating games from the centre of the midfield, astutely protecting his defence while also regularly playing incisive forward balls.

So it was thought that new Barcelona Luis Enrique would end the experiment of playing the former Liverpool man as a converted defender, especially when the Catalan club signed two new centre-backs this summer in Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen.

But Mascherano was named as centre-back for Barca's La Liga opener on Sunday, and lasted just 44 minutes until he was sent off after being caught wrong-side of Elche winger Gerry Rodrigues. Enrique's selection was possibly conditioned by Vermaelen's injury and Gerard Pique's suspension, but Marc Bartra was available so it was hardly an emergency situation.

The lesson seemed to be that that Barca's 4-3-3 has only one place for a deep lying midfielder -- and Sergio Busquets remains first pick there despite a rocky past 12 months. Mascherano is clearly among the Blaugrana squad's best XI players, but he still does not have a secure place in their starting lineup.

3. New keepers benched

A feature of La Liga's transfer window was many big sides buying new high-profile goalkeepers -- but, for various reasons, most of the recent arrivals did not put on their gloves on the opening weekend.

Madrid spent 10 million euros on Keylor Navas, but the Costa Rican World Cup hero looks set for a bench role as club captain Iker Casillas gets a chance to slowly rebuild his confidence. Malaga signed another star from Brazil in Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa, but Cameroon's Carlos Kameni played against Athletic Bilbao, keeping a clean sheet, and hours later signed a new long-term contract with the club.

Young Slovenian Jan Oblak cost 16 million euros as the apparent replacement for Thibaut Courtois at Atletico Madrid but, amid speculation that coach Diego Simeone does not fancy him, Carlos Moya (three million euros from Getafe) started the season as first choice and made some key saves to stave off defeat at Rayo. Real Sociedad signed another much-hyped youngster in Argentine Geronimo Rulli, but long-serving reserve Enaut Zubikarai got the first opportunity to replace the departing Claudio Bravo.

This could be just a temporary situation as coaches tend to be wary about throwing new keepers straight into the team, but Navas, Oblak, Ochoa and Rulli all look set for some time on the bench.

Javier Lara celebrates his goal at the weekend.

4. Flipside of Eibar 'miracle'

Zubikarai played a role in the weekend's most heartwarming story, being beaten by Javi Lara's excellent free kick as tiny Eibar won their first-ever Primera Division game at the picturesque Ipurura ground.

The 1-0 victory was even sweeter for the 5,173 crowd -- and the 130 watching from overlooking apartment balconies and the full press box -- as seven of the starting XI were at the club in the third division just two years ago. There has been understandably widespread interest in the village club winning the Segunda title last season with the division's lowest outlay (just three million euros) and now competing in the top flight with an entire annual club budget that would not pay the wages of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

While the story is a good one, and young coach Gaizka Garitano and president Alex Aranzabal have both done outstanding work, there is another angle too. A club of Eibar's size should not really be in the top flight, but their rise has been helped by woeful off-pitch mismanagement at much bigger clubs such as Real Zaragoza, Real Mallorca, Racing Santander, Murcia and Sporting Gijon. The achievement has been spectacular -- but that Eibar has climbed so easily to the top does not really reflect too well on many in Spanish football.

5. Lim's Valencia off to good start in race for fourth

Despite Simeone's protestations, his work at the club means Spain now has a "big three" -- meaning realistically only one Champions League spot is up for grabs this season.

Two of the most likely challengers met at Sevilla's Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday night, where the all new Valencia of Peter Lim, Nuno Espirito Santo and Jorge Mendes looked the more promising in a 1-1 draw.

Six new players made their debuts for Los Che -- with two in particular catching the eye. Defender Lucas Orban came off the bench to score the late deserved equaliser, after another new arrival and substitute midfielder Rodrigo De Paul had less impressively got himself sent off 70 odd seconds after coming on. More quietly impressive was Argentine centre-back Nicolas Otamendi, who was finally making his debut after a bungled transfer last January.

More comings and goings are expected at Valencia before the summer transfer window shuts -- and the long-running takeover of the club by Lim's company Meriton is still not fully completed. So we will have to wait a while to see how they shape up.

But given how poor Sevilla looked, and the surprise defeats for both Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, Lim's promises of taking the side back into the Champions League are already looking likely to come true.

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