MADRID (AP) — No one saw this one coming.
Real Madrid is the team struggling early in the Spanish league. Barcelona is just cruising along in the lead.
It was supposed to be the other way around considering how both teams entered the season: Barcelona was in turmoil, Madrid was thriving.
Madrid, the defending European and Spanish champion, was considered the early favorite after keeping its top players from a season ago and routing Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup. It had also defeated Manchester United 2-1 in the European Super Cup.
Barcelona was reeling after the surprise departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and the failure to sign many top players during the offseason. It also had to deal with the absence of Luis Suarez because of an injury.
It all pointed to early success for Madrid and disappointment for Barcelona.
But three games into the season, Barcelona has a perfect record and Madrid has only one victory.
The Catalan club is the league leader with nine points from three victories, along with Real Sociedad, while Madrid is in seventh place with five points from a win and two consecutive draws, both at home.
“It’s early in the season and the difference in points is not significant, but it’s better to be in front than to be behind,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said after the team’s 5-0 rout of Espanyol at Camp Nou Stadium on Saturday. “You never know what may happen later on. It doesn’t mean much now, but it’s good to be ahead. We will keep focused on winning and adding points.”
Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid could not manage more than a 1-1 draw against minnow Levante at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Saturday.
“I’m not worried, games like this one are normal in a season,” Zidane said. “There will be ups and downs, but the good thing is that we have plenty of time to fix things.”
Madrid had opened with a convincing 3-0 win at Deportivo La Coruna but then was held to a 2-2 draw by Valencia at the Bernabeu. Next weekend it will face a difficult test when it travels to play co-leader Real Sociedad at Anoeta Stadium. Before that, it makes its Champions League debut against Apoel.
Barcelona, which opened with 2-0 victories against Real Betis and at Alaves, hosts Juventus in the Champions League before playing at Getafe in the league on Saturday. Getafe has four points and is yet to win at home.
To make things worse for Madrid, it will have to face Real Sociedad without Karim Benzema because of a muscle injury sustained against Levante, and without veteran left back Marcelo because of red card picked up late in the game.
Cristiano Ronaldo, still suspended after pushing a referee in the Spanish Super Cup final, also won’t play on Sunday.
Barcelona is back at full strength after Saturday’s return of Suarez, who missed the first two league games with an injury.
Lionel Messi thrived as the team’s lone star, scoring five goals in the first three league matches, including a hat trick in the Catalan derby against Espanyol.
Barcelona’s good start has put fans back at ease after the team started the season in bit of a crisis following the Spanish Super Cup loss to Madrid and the transfer-window debacle in which it failed to sign any top players other than Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund.
“The most important thing is that the team has been playing well and the players are committed,” Valverde said. “We are being able to play well and please the fans who have been coming to watch us.”
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