Madrid (AFP) – La Liga is back after a three-month coronavirus shutdown with games behind closed doors, and with Lionel Messi looking different but playing like he always does.
AFP Sport picks out some of the standout images of the return of top-flight football in Spain:
– Messi back with new look –
More than three months had passed since Messi’s last appearance on a football field. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner will be 33 in little over a week, but while he approaches veteran status, his post-lockdown look is more of a reminder of the young Messi.
The hair is longer and swept over to one side. Most strikingly the beard has gone, leaving the Argentine looking fresh-faced.
La Liga’s leading scorer looked sharp with the ball at his feet too, and scored the final goal of a 4-0 win away in Mallorca — after earlier strikes by Arturo Vidal, Martin Braithwaite and Jordi Alba — as Barcelona moved five points clear of title tivals Real Madrid, who play on Sunday.
– Virus victims remembered –
La Liga’s return is a boost for a football-mad country that has been ravaged by the coronavirus, with more than 27,000 officially recorded deaths making it one of the worst-hit nations worldwide in the pandemic.
Like other sports competitions getting going again, strict health protocols mean games in Spain are being played behind closed doors, ensuring unusual atmospheres at matches that would otherwise go ahead in front of large crowds like the derby between Valencia and Levante.
At Mestalla, as elsewhere, a minute’s silence was held before kick-off to remember those victims of Covid-19.
– The new matchday experience –
Without access to stadiums, supporters are still coming together to watch games. However, only a limited number of Barcelona fans could access this supporters’ club in the Catalan capital to watch their team’s game against Mallorca.
Spaced out to respect social distancing measures, and wearing face masks, they took in Barca’s win which allowed the defending champions to extend their lead at the top of the table.
Without fans inside grounds, broadcasters have instead been projecting virtual crowds taken from the computer game FIFA onto seats, and adding crowd chants.
– Suarez boon for Barca –
Barcelona’s first game since March also saw Luis Suarez make his first appearance since early January after injury.
The Uruguayan underwent surgery on a knee problem that at one point threatened to rule him out of the rest of the season, but the coronavirus shutdown has allowed him to come back in time to play a potentially key role in the title run-in.
Suarez replaced Antoine Griezmann in the second half of Barca’s game at Mallorca. He didn’t find the net, but will have a big part to play in the weeks to come, with 10 games left for Quique Setien’s team as they try to fend off Real Madrid’s challenge.