Barcelona started life without Lionel Messi by defeating Real Sociedad 4-2 in their La Liga opener at the Camp Nou on Sunday even if fans admitted it felt like “a leap into the unknown”.

A Martin Braithwaite brace, Gerard Pique’s 50th goal for the club and a late Sergi Roberto effort confirmed all three points for the Catalan club.

Just over 20,000 fans were in attendance as crowds returned for the first time since the pandemic.

However, they had to hold their breath at one stage when Sociedad came back from 3-0 down to get to 3-2 thanks to goals from 20-year-old Julen Lobete in the 82nd minute and a 30-metre free-kick from skipper Mikel Oyarzabal three minutes later.

Six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi called time on his two-decade career at Barcelona last week and moved to Paris Saint-Germain.

Messi’s memory lingered heavy over the Camp Nou on Sunday despite the removal of a giant photograph of the Argentine superstar from the entrance in the wake of his move to France.

Some banners were in place well before kick-off venting the fans anger towards president Joan Laporta.

La Liga champions Atletico Madrid got their season underway with a 2-1 win at Celta Vigo.

Angel Correa gave Atletico the lead after 23 minutes after being set up by Thomas Lemar.

Correa added a second goal in the 64th minute just five minutes after Iago Aspas had pulled Celta level from the penalty spot.

However, the game was marred by a mass brawl in the closing stages following a foul on Atletico striker Luis Suarez.

Red cards were brandished for Hugo Mallo of Celta and Mario Hermoso of Atletico.

In Sunday’s late game, Sevilla defeated Rayo Vallecano 3-0 with Moroccan international Youssef En-Nesyri scoring a first-half penalty before new Argentine recruit Erik Lamela grabbed two.

Vallecano played 75 minutes a man short after goalkeeper Luca Zidane, the son of French football legend Zinedine, was red-carded for bringing down Oussama Idrissi in the move which led to the penalty.

As Barca try to fill the Messi-sized gap, as well as ballooning debts of more than 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion), Real Madrid got off to a flier on the pitch as a brace from French veteran striker Karim Benzema helped bring a 4-1 victory at Alaves on Saturday.

The win, achieved with further goals from Nacho and Vinicius allowed Carlo Ancelotti to celebrate the start of his second spell in charge with a victory.

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