Favourable first impressions

Eden Hazard looks like he's come back from a fitness camp.
Eden Hazard looks like he's come back from a fitness camp. / EP
  • The initial matches following the restart have been surprisingly lively, taking on the feel of the busy Christmas period when you don't know what day it is

At least in lockdown we had an excuse for not knowing what day it was; the return of La Liga and other top-class football has left us completely confused.

First impressions of the "new normal" are favourable, especially in Spanish football.

The crowd noise, added to the broadcast pictures, does aid the viewing. I was quite looking forward to hearing every comment and call from the players, coaches and officials, but concede that the incoherent echo does jar very quickly.

The digital fans aren't perfect but do add to the experience and are slightly preferable to the giant corporate flags or empty seats.

The little things can become big things. Real Madrid's decision to play at the mini-stadium, allowing reconstruction at the Bernabéu, is working. They'll know the surroundings, maybe even better than at the regular stadium. The club's head groundsman has ensured that the pitch is perfect and has the same measurements as the main field.

I know at least one manager is insisting the match day routine is kept to exactly the same as a pre-lockdown experience, going as far as insisting the stadium announcer plays the music in the same order, the ball boys/girls are familiar and the security guards take up their regular position.

The initial matches have been surprisingly lively. Lionel Messi has benefitted from being parted from his stylist and has the appearance of a mesmerising millennial; Eden Hazard looks like he's spent the enforced break at a fitness farm; Sergio Ramos has returned with vigour; and Luis Suárez is fighting fit.

More than before, it will come down to how the players are managed. Barcelona utilised 20 players in the opening two fixtures and Real Madrid balanced the playing time. In some ways, it will be like the festive matches in England when teams are juggled, and players unseen for months will make prominent appearances.

Having the ability to use five substitutes will become a science. I remember this was trialled when I played in America. Our coach staggered his changes, often balancing out playing time for the vital players. I will never forget the unique approach of one opponent who held all five substitutes until the final 15 minutes and then sent on a whole offensive line of giants in the Peter Crouch mould. It worked; a chap I'm convinced they'd borrowed from a basketball club caused mayhem getting on the end of a long-throw expert who could have been a quarterback.

The signs are that La Liga will go to the wire. At least the teams aren't distracted by European excursions as the Champions League will take on a one-game knockout format from the quarter finals stage. At the time of writing, when and where they resume the unfinished round of 16 games is a little sketchy, but the coaches are happy to put that on the back burner.

So, we are knee-deep into the 110 games required to complete the season. It's just like that crazy period between Christmas Day and New Year's Day when you lose track of time and what's going on. The difference is that this will last for five weeks as the days get hotter and the energy saps. Sit, lay back and enjoy.