x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Barca aiming for a flying start

Barcelona start their Primera Liga campaign tonight at home to Sporting Gijon and will hope to avoid a repeat of last season's slow start.

BARCELONA // Barcelona start their Primera Liga campaign tonight at home to Sporting Gijon and will hope to avoid a repeat of last season's slow start. The Catalans lost their opening fixture against Numancia, who eventually finished bottom. They only drew their second game at home to Racing Santander before destroying tonight's opponents Sporting Gijon 6-1 in their third. Barca then went on to win 19 and draw one of their next 20 league games, building up an unassailable lead as coach Pep Guardiola won the league in his first season.

Confidence is high in the Barca camp after lifting their fifth trophy of the year - Friday night's European Super Cup in Monaco - with captain Carles Puyol saying: "We want to get even better. We've got loads of desire and who knows how far we can go? There's a great feeling in the team and the truth is we are all very happy. We are making history at the club and we want to continue working hard and making the fans happy."

Sporting won their final three games of last season to climb out of the relegation zone and finish in a respectable 14th in their first season back in the top flight since 1998. Before that, the Asturians had spent much of their existence in Spain's top level and were frequent top-five finishers, often backed by some of the country's most raucous fans. Those supporters will be relieved that Sporting will not have to face Lionel Messi tonight as the mercurial forward is in Argentina preparing to face Brazil in this week's vital World Cup qualifier in his home city of Rosario.

Guardiola could have a fresh face to call on in new ?25 million (Dh130m) recruit Dymytro Chygrynskiy, who signed yesterday after he had played against Barca for Shakhtar Donetsk on Friday. Barca's seventh central defender in as many years admitted that it was strange to play against his new teammates, saying: "It was odd playing against a team you know that in a few days will be your team but as soon as the whistle blew at the start I was fully focused."

Barca will also be privately encouraged by Real Madrid's performance in their opening league game on Saturday night. Real beat Deportivo La Coruna 3-2 and given that their starting XI included seven new players, the result was more important than the performance. It was obvious that Real are still a work in progress as they committed multiple mistakes. Among the debutants in a packed Bernabeu were Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema - who made up the majority of their ?250 million summer spending spree. Kaka started brightly and Ronaldo scored a 35th minute penalty after Deportivo striker Riki had cancelled out Raul's opening goal. The Portuguese winger showed moments of brilliance in a carnival atmosphere not witnessed since Real beat Barca 4-1 in 2008, but his level was short of that shown at Manchester United.

Benzema was the more disappointing of the debutants and found the game hard going, though the French striker is still just 21. Real dominated possession and created many chances, but the finishing was wayward. Their defence has long been considered their weak point. With an average age of 24 on Saturday, they looked comfortable and even dangerous in possession, but made slips which allowed Depor to score twice.

Depor's second equaliser came just after half-time, a superb drilled shot from the veteran playmaker Juan Carlos Valeron. He was magnanimously applauded by the home crowd, which included sprinter Usain Bolt, when he was substituted in the 68th minute. By that time, Lassana Diarra had put Real into a 3-2 lead they would retain. "I was satisfied," said Real coach Manuel Pellegrini. "There is always a lot of anticipation and players get nervous in the first game. But I'm also happy because we scored three goals and created chances to get many more."

In Saturday's other game between two of the promoted sides, Real Zaragoza beat Tenerife 1-0. @Email:amitten@thenational.ae Barcelona v Sporting Gijon, KO midnight, Aljazeera Sport + 2