Lionel Messi missed a penalty, but Luis Suarez scored in the second half to give Barcelona a 1-0 away victory over Athletic Bilbao in their La Liga opener on Sunday.
That gave the defending champions 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 Real Sporting de Gijon.
Suarez netted the winner from close range after a left-flank cross by Jordi Alba in the 54th minute at the San Mames. Messi had a chance to open the scoring in the first half after a disputed foul on Suarez inside the area, but the Argentina playmaker had his low shot from the spot saved by goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz.
“We won the game and that is what is important,” Suarez said.
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 minute, while 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, when his left-footed shot was deflected wide as Iraizoz dived to his right to tip the ball away.
Bilbao players 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.
Luis Enrique’s team began their 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 is recovering from the mumps and fellow Brazilian Adriano is injured, while Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu were suspended.
Madrid, trying to end a three-year title drought in La Liga, dominated at the El Molinon, but could not capitalize on their scoring chances, including those involving Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Gijon goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar made a great save to keep a Ronaldo shot out in the 84th minute to keep the deadlock intact.
Newly signed Croatia midfielder Mateo Kovacic made his debut in the second half, but was not able to spark Madrid to victory.
“We showed character and personality in the second half,” Benitez said. “We went for the win, but just could not score.”
Elsewhere, RC Celta de Vigo earned a 2-1 win at Levante UD, who played a man down nearly the entire match after losing midfielder Simao Mate to a red card in the fifth minute, while Real Betis Balompie drew 1-1 at home against Villarreal thanks to a late goal by Ruben Castro.
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