Lionel Messi missed a penalty kick but Luis Suarez scored in the second half to give Barcelona a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in its Spanish league opener on Sunday.
That gave the defending champion a small gap on archrival Real Madrid right away, as Rafa Benitez started his stint in charge with a 0-0 draw at promoted side Sporting Gijon.
Suarez netted the winner from close range after a left-flank cross by Jordi Alba in the 54th minute at Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium. Messi had a chance to open the scoring in the first half after a disputed foul on Suarez inside the area, but the Argentine playmaker had his low shot from the spot saved by goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz.
“We won the game and that’s what’s important,” Suarez said.
A disappointing result in the opener would have raised more questions about Barcelona after an unusually difficult start to the season. The club was stunned by Bilbao last week in the Spanish Super Cup final, losing the title 5-1 on aggregate.
Bilbao presented the Super Cup trophy to the nearly 50,000 fans that packed the San Mames on Sunday, but the team could not keep its momentum going against the Spanish powerhouse.
Barcelona played just well enough to earn the victory, and had most of the significant scoring opportunities. Sergi Roberto hit the crossbar with a right-footed shot in the 60th, and Messi made one of his traditional runs past several defenders near the end of the game but his shot came out weak for an easy save by Iraizoz.
Messi’s best chance was the 32nd-minute penalty kick, when his left-footed shot was deflected wide as Iraizoz dived to his right to tip the ball away.
Bilbao players loudly complained at the penalty call as it appeared there was only light contact by defender Gorka Elustondo on Suarez. Replays also showed that the Uruguayan striker appeared to be offside at the time of the pass from the back field.
Luis Enrique’s team began its season with a depleted squad because of injuries and suspensions, and it only got worse Sunday when right back Dani Alves had to be substituted in the first half and Sergio Busquets in the second because of apparent injuries. Star striker Neymar was recovering from the mumps and fellow Brazilian Adriano was injured, while Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu were suspended.
“It’s a difficult situation, they are very important players for our team,” Suarez said. “But we have a lot of quality players to replace them if needed.”
Madrid, trying to end a three-year title drought in La Liga, dominated at the El Molinon Stadium but couldn’t capitalize on its scoring chances, including a few good ones involving Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Sporting Gijon goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar made a great save on Ronaldo’s shot in the 84th to keep the deadlock intact.
Newly signed Croatia midfielder Mateo Kovacic made his debut in the second half but wasn’t able to sparkMadrid to victory.
After the final whistle, Sporting Gijon players and fans celebrated the result in the team’s return to the top flight.
“We showed character and personality in the second half,” Benitez said. “We went for the win but just couldn’t score.”
In one of the late games, Celta earned a 2-1 win at Levante, which played a man down nearly the entire match after losing midfielder Simao Mate to a red card in the fifth minute. Real Betis salvaged a 1-1 home draw against Villarreal thanks to a late goal by Ruben Castro.
Atletico Madrid began with a lackluster 1-0 win over newcomer Las Palmas at its Vicente Calderon Stadium on Saturday thanks to a 16th-minute free kick goal by Antoine Griezmann, while midfielder Salva Sevilla scored early in the first half to give Espanyol a 1-0 win over 10-man Getafe.
The league struggled to produce goals on its first two days, with scoreless draws between Valencia-Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad-Deportivo La Coruna and Sevilla-Malaga.