x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hercules face warm welcome

La Liga kicks off in the midst of heat wave and Athletic Bilbao, a club on the way up, will be formidable opposition for returnees to top tier.

Iker Muniain, right, Athletic Bilbao's teenage striker.
Iker Muniain, right, Athletic Bilbao's teenage striker.

Spain's Primera Liga kicks off tonight, with six teams in action along the Spanish coast, in Valencia, Alicante and Malaga. All will appreciate the sea breeze, with temperatures of 40°C forecast as Spain wilts under another heat wave.

Hercules v Athletic Bilbao is the first game, with the 30,000-capacity Jose Rico Perez Stadium offering no cover and respite from the August Mediterranean sun. It is the first match for Hercules in the top flight since 1996/97, though they were regulars among the big boys in the 1970s and 1980s, which was the main reason their stadium was rebuilt to stage 1982 World Cup games. Their fortunes slipped and they spent the first half of the last decade in the regional third division behind city rivals Alicante.

Despite a substantial budget, Hercules did not buy any household names during the summer. They host an Athletic Bilbao side more confident of a solid league campaign than at any time in the last decade. With Spanish World Cup winners like Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente in the side, plus prodigy Iker Muniain, 17, the Basques are on an upward trajectory and expect to improve on last season's eighth-place finish. In tonight's second game, Malaga host a Valencia side who finished third last term but start this campaign without David Villa and David Silva, their two best players, who were sold in the summer.

Club stalwarts Carlos Marchena and Ruben Baraja have also departed, with Nikola Zigic, the Serbian striker, also leaving. Unai Emery, the coach has been busy, though, with 11 new arrivals at the Mestalla. The former Real Madrid and Getafe striker Roberto Soldado is their biggest signing so far. Malaga are under new Qatari owners who have appointed Spain's only female chief executive to run the club. With seven arrivals and 12 departures over the summer, questions remain over whether Jesualdo Ferreira, the new Portuguese coach who arrived from Porto, can organise a side quickly enough to have an impact.

In the late game, the relegation favourites Levante entertain a Sevilla side dumped out of the Champions League qualifiers by the unheralded Portuguese side Braga, 5-3 on aggregate. The 4-3 home defeat stunned Sevilla, who expected to reach the Champions League group stages. It was the second time in four days that they had conceded four goals and the defeat puts pressure on coach Antonio Alvarez, who took charge in March. The former Sevilla player and technical director has been assured of his position, for now, but a poor league start will make it increasingly untenable.

Real Madrid and Barcelona open their accounts tomorrow with away games at Mallorca and Racing Santander, respectively. Mallorca have seen several of their best players, like Borja Valero and Aritz Aduriz, depart and are in administration. Banned by Uefa from playing in the Europa League after not paying for several of the stars who helped them finish an impressive fifth last season, they also saw Gregorio Manzano, the hugely popular coach, depart. He has been replaced by Michael Laudrup, the once sublime Barcelona and Real Madrid forward now in his seventh management season.

Four of those years were spent at Brondby in his native Denmark, before he took Getafe on a fine Uefa Cup run in 2008, overseeing a side which bore little resemblance to Laudrup the player. An unhappy, 13-game spell in charge of Spartak Moscow last year followed, before his return to Spain and the terminal chaos surrounding Mallorca. Real were one of the few teams to beat Mallorca away last season and scored four times, while Barca put in four goals in each of their games against Racing last term. New Barca signing Javier Mascherano is unlikely to play; his transfer was being completed yesterday. But the Argentine holding midfielder is seen as a direct replacement for Yaya Toure. Anything but two wins for the big two will be a surprise, but there are always shocks on the opening weekend, especially under the fierce Spanish sun. sports@thenational.ae

Tomorrow Levante v Sevilla Real Sociedad v Villarreal Racing v Barcelona Malaga v Valencia Hercules v Athletic Espanyol v Getafe Mallorca v Real Madrid Deportivo v Zaragoza Osasuna v Almeria Sunday Atletico v Sporting Gijon