Atletico leading, Zidane lifts Real and Turan settling well with Barcelona
Here's a look at five things we learned from the latest round of matches in La Liga, with Atletico Madrid in pole position -- for now.
1. Atletico Madrid lead the way
Atletico Madrid's efficient 2-0 win at Celta Vigo on Sunday night underlined just how well Diego Simeone's team are playing at the moment. Even though Barcelona are just two points back with a game in hand, Atletico are deserved leaders as La Liga reaches its half-way point.
Once again Atletico's win at Balaidos was built upon a rock-solid defence, with Celta only managing one shot on target all game. Commanding goalkeeper Jan Oblak has kept 12 clean sheets and conceded just eight times across the first 19 games. Goals have been harder to come by for Atletico, but on Sunday both Antoine Griezmann's opener and Yannick Carrasco's clincher were expertly made and taken.
The result and performance made quite a statement, but as usual Simeone was keen to play down the idea his team might be able to repeat their shock La Liga triumph of two years back.
"We are doing well and this win will give us energy to prepare for the Copa game on Thursday against Rayo," the Argentine coach said afterwards.
"We are not better or worse than anyone else, but we have a group ready to compete in any moment. The team can still improve and needs to keep improving."
2. Zidane lifts the mood
Zinedine Zidane's first game in charge of Real Madrid brought a straightforward 5-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna and a lifting of the mood around the Bernabeu.
Gareth Bale took the headlines with a super hat trick, including two of his now trademark flying headers. Karim Benzema opened and finished the scoring, with only Cristiano Ronaldo having a personally frustrating evening with no luck from 10 shots at goal over the 90 minutes. There were also crowd-pleasing returns for local favourites Isco and Dani Carvajal.
Zidane and his men diplomatically played down the pretty obvious idea that the team felt liberated following Rafael Benitez's exit. Afterwards Bale told reporters "there wasn't much different," with the side while Zidane also kept his feet on the ground.
Elsewhere, Luka Modric said: "I'm sorry for Rafa, and I would like to thank him for his work, but being honest and seeing the game today, I believe the change will be good.
"When you lose there is always someone who pays. But to be honest you just have to compare this game with others before."
3. Arda and Vidal settling in well
Granada's 22nd visit to the Camp Nou brought their 22nd defeat on Saturday, with a young visiting side never in with a chance once Lionel Messi put Barcelona ahead just eight minutes in.
Messi went on to net his 33rd Barca hat-trick and Neymar rounded off the scoring late on, to join Luis Suarez on 15 goals in La Liga. After all the tension around recent meetings with local rivals Espanyol and ahead of the trip to Cornella El-Prat for Wednesday's second leg, this was a welcome relaxing afternoon.
Blaugrana fans will also have been happy with how well last summer's signings, Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, fitted in on what was both players' first La Liga start for their new club. Playing on the left of the midfield three, Arda provided the pass for Messi's opener and his lovely dummy also set the Argentine on his way for his third of the game.
Vidal was very involved from right-back too. It's difficult to tell whether either will get a first team place when everyone is available to coach Luis Enrique, but after six months waiting on sidelines, both have fitted in pretty well.
4. Well-run clubs doing well on the pitch
Half-way through the season and things are looking very, very good for probably La Liga's two best run clubs; Villarreal and Eibar.
Villarreal's routine 2-0 win at home to Sporting Gijon on Sunday lunchtime was a sixth successive victory and helped Marcelino's side strengthen their hold on fourth place.
The Yellow Submarine have taken 39 from a possible 57 points so far, equalling their club record start from 2010/11, when they went on to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League. Eight points clear of the chasing pack, a repeat of that achievement looks odds-on.
Eibar are also outstripping expectations, with the Basque club's 2-1 win at home to Espanyol on Sunday evening bringing them to 30 points already. It's been a "dream first half of the season," the club's website said.
Eibar fell away badly during the second half of the last campaign but this year's squad is much stronger and a top-half finish looks on the cards.
History is also being made at Valencia, but in a less positive way. Sunday afternoon's limp 2-0 reverse at Real Sociedad means Los Che have gone eight La Liga games without a win, with three draws and two defeats since Gary Neville replaced Nuno as coach.
Valencia are now closer to the relegation zone than Champions League qualification. Constant turmoil at Mestalla -- the have had six coaches and three presidents in the past four years -- is surely a contributing factor.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
5. Paco Jemez needs quick turnaround
Levante's 2-1 win at home to Rayo Vallecano on Saturday evening was their first victory in nine outings. The three points was enough to lift them off the bottom of the table and it pulled Rayo right down into the relegation mix.
Rayo have just two points from their last eight matches. With only 15 points from the first 19 games, this is the club's worst first half of a season since 1989-90. Their 43 goals conceded so far is the highest total at this stage since they conceded 45 two seasons back.
Two years ago, Rayo signed some players in January and they clicked, helping the club finish 12th. They'll need a similar turnaround to stay up this time.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan