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Sep 1, 2014

Five things we learned in La Liga

Two goals from David Zurutuza help Sociedad fight back from 2 goals down to hand Real Madrid their first league loss of the season.

Each week we will take a look at five things we learned from the weekend of La Liga action. This weekend, we pile through Real Madrid's defeat, while Atletico bounced back.

1. Madrid go into post-formation phase

It seemed likely that Real Madrid would miss the departed Xabi Alonso at some point this season, but few predicted the problem would become so obvious so soon. Blowing a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 at Real Sociedad has turned the focus immediately onto how coach Carlo Ancelotti can re-find the balance which Alonso and Angel Di Maria brought to the side last year.

Ancelotti explained after the game that at Anoeta the team had been set up at 4-3-3 with the ball, with Isco in midfield and James Rodriguez wide-right. That was to become a 4-4-2 when defending, with Isco to the left and James dropping back to cover on his wing. Which possibly sounds okay in theory, but in practice there were holes everywhere, with Alonso's supposed replacement as the "holder" Toni Kroos especially struggling as his man David Zurutuza twice broke late into the box to score.

Meanwhile Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi were looking on from the bench, where Ancelotti's eyebrow was arching even further towards the sky. At his post-match news conference, the Italian denied that the problem was any particular players having left, more a general relaxation by the team when they thought the game had been won. But the "midfield balance" issue post-Alonso looks set to run and run.

2. Dani Alves still key for Barca

Dani Alves had an interesting return to Villarreal on Saturday night as Barcelona won a tight game 1-0. The Brazilian right-back -- who had a banana thrown at him from the stands during last season's fixture -- was whistled throughout the game by home "fans" who seemed for some reason to blame him for the incident. He also felt understandably victimised when he was booked just before half-time for complaining after being kicked twice in two minutes.

But Alves will have left pretty satisfied with his evening's work. Under new coach Luis Enrique, a big part of both full-backs' job is to get forward and provide attacking width, and he put in an incredible 18 crosses with Barca's attacking skewed down the right-side. On the other wing Jordi Alba knocked over just four. While many of Alves' crosses did not find their intended target, he did create at least two excellent chances for Neymar, and drew the praise of his new boss afterwards. "His second half was spectacular," Enrique said.

The former Sevilla player seems to have been around forever, having played over 500 games in Europe since leaving his home country in summer 2010. He has been regularly linked with a move away from the Camp Nou through recent years. But he is still just 31, and managed 146 touches on the ball against Villarreal -- the most of any player in La Liga so far this season.

Barca just signed another right-back in Douglas from Sao Paulo for 5.5 million euros last week, and La Masia graduate Martin Montoya is also still around, but Alves looks sure to play a big role again for Barca this season.

3. The goals will come for Atletico

Champions Atletico Madrid were very lucky to get the three points in Saturday's 2-1 home win over Eibar, with the newly promoted side twice almost snatching an equaliser late on. While Atletico's previously solid back-line rocked a little towards the end, the real issues were up front.

In four games this season [two in the Supercopa and first two in La Liga] Atletico have scored just four goals, and three of those have come from set-pieces. Mario Mandzukic has scored twice, including a well taken header on Saturday, but Antoine Griezmann and Raul Jimenez are yet to get off the mark. A fourth new signing -- Alessio Cerci from Torino -- has only been brought in at the last minute.

On paper these four are a step up from last year's reliance on Diego Costa [27 Liga goals], when other attackers David Villa [13] and Adrian Lopez [just one] both went on long barren runs. Costa's mix of pace, physicality and finishing is pretty much irreplaceable. But Atletico should have more options this season -- and much more pace out wide through Griezmann [16 La Liga goals last year] and Cerci [13 goals and 10 assists in Serie A]. Mandzukic [25 goals for Bayern in all competitions] should be more of a specialist finisher.

So Atletico's all new front-line will take time to click properly but, considering the financial restraints the club works under, this summer's attacking business looks pretty clever.

Paco Alcacer will be a key player for years to come.

4. Valencia's new centre-forward was there all along

Valencia have all summer been heavily linked in the local media with Porto's Jackson Martinez, with Peter Lim and Jorge Mendes apparently keen to bring in a big name centre-forward to lead their top four challenge. Then last weekend Alvaro Negredo's name appeared in reports, with Los Che supposed to be urgently chasing a No. 9 before the transfer window ends.

Meanwhile homegrown Los Che frontman Paco Alcacer has started the season in superb form. Alcacer scored just six times in 23 La Liga appearances last term, but he was more deadly in the Europa League -- netting seven in 11 games. He has also been impressing for years with Spain's underage teams, top scoring at the under-17 Euros in 2010, and winning both the 2011 and 2012 U-19 Euros with his country.

At Friday lunchtime he was rewarded with a call-up to the senior La Roja squad by Vicente Del Bosque, and marked the occasion with a well taken goal and clever assist in his side's 3-0 win over Malaga later that evening. Saturday was his 21st birthday. Even amid all the talk of high profile arrivals, Valencia fans are right to be most excited about Alcacer.

5. Levante in big trouble

Levante were -- once again -- one of the success stories of last season's La Liga. With Keylor Navas starring in goal and Joaquin Caparros organising from the bench, "Los granotas" finished 10th and also enjoyed late season wins over champions Atletico Madrid and more-storied neighbours Valencia in their last two home games of 2013-14.

That all seems a long time ago now. Navas and Caparros have gone, and 2014-15 has not started so well at all. New boss Jose Luis Mendilibar has experience -- this is his 21st consecutive season coaching professionally. But Mendilibar picked up another record this weekend: the first manager to lose both his first two Primera Division games in three consecutive seasons.

The Basque suggested after Saturday's limp 3-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao that another of last year's key men -- midfielder Papakouli Diop -- could also be leaving. It already looks like those remaining at Levante have their work cut out to avoid the drop this season.

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