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Atletico top as Barcelona and Real Madrid draw, Malaga on the up

Dermot Corrigan recaps what you need to know from the midweek's La Liga action, in which Atletico went top as Barcelona struggled, while Valencia and Real Madrid played out an entertaining draw.

1. Neville enjoying himself, but Rafa is not

Sunday evening's clash of two former Premier League giants was great entertainment, although new Valencia coach Gary Neville seemed to enjoy it a lot more than under-fire Real Madrid boss Rafa Benitez.

"Rafa, you gave us the best years of our lives," said a banner across Mestalla's Curva Nord early in the game, recalling the two La Liga titles and UEFA Cup triumph during Benitez's three years in charge of Valencia just over a decade ago. However, after an incident packed 2-2 draw, the 55-year-old looked weighed down by a tough first half of the season in charge of Madrid and few believed his postmatch claims that he was happy with how his side had controlled the game.

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Benitez remains in limbo, with no sign yet of club president Florentino Perez wielding the axe, but also no evidence that Madrid's players are on the same wavelength as their coach.

Yet, despite his team now being 13 points off the top four, Neville was bubbling during his news conference after the game. The former pundit talked openly about how he had enjoyed the game, felt comfortable on the bench and thought it was the best that Valencia had played since he arrived. The spoils may have been shared, but the contrast in both managers' moods was clear.

2. Barca need to freshen up

Saturday afternoon's Catalan derby was also an entertaining game to watch, although it didn't look too much fun for Barca to play in.

Lionel Messi hit the crossbar and Luis Suarez the post, while Neymar appeared to receive racist abuse from the home fans. But there were few complaints from the Blaugrana camp after the game about the 0-0 result given that Espanyol keeper Pau Lopez made just two saves, neither of them too difficult. Indeed, Barca coach Luis Enrique suggested his team had got what they deserved for not matching their poorer neighbours' intensity and aggression.

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Although Atletico are top for now, Barca remain huge title favourites despite the fact they have now drawn three of their last four La Liga games. Mental and physical tiredness after a successful but draining 2015 looks an issue, which makes it all the more strange that Luis Enrique decided to make just one substitution during Saturday's game.

The Camp Nou outfit could face nine games during a busy January schedule -- assuming they come through two more tough Copa del Rey legs against their scrappy neighbours. Summer signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal are now finally available to play, while ex-Barca B players Nolito and Denis Suarez could well return in the transfer window. Extra numbers and some new freshness are badly needed if 2016 is to go to plan for Barca.

3. Thomas comes good at right time

Three times already this season, Atletico Madrid had gone into a game knowing a win would put them top of the table. But against Villarreal, Deportivo La Coruna and Malaga, Diego Simeone's side had been unable to get the required three points.

A similar situation seemed to be unfolding on Saturday evening at the Vicente Calderon. With 10 minutes remaining, the game against bottom side Levante was still scoreless, even after Atletico had managed 14 attempts on goal and hit the woodwork three times.

Then substitute Thomas Partey drove into the box, held off two challenges and got off a shot which Levante goalkeeper Diego Marino somehow managed to save with one hand then knock to the net with his other. For the second time in four days Thomas, who also set up a late opening goal coming off the bench in last Wednesday's 2-0 win at Rayo Vallecano, had delivered.

The 22-year-old Ghananain joined Atletico back in 2012, but only made his Colchoneros debut in late November, and has yet to start a game for the Calderon club. Now his time has come.

4. Malaga on the up

It was all doom and gloom around La Rosaleda in early December, with Malaga having taken just one point and scoring two goals in five La Liga outings on their way into the relegation zone, before being dumped out of the Copa del Rey by second tier Mirandes.

Coach Javi Gracia was under pressure, but the club's owner Abdullah Al-Thani backed him and instead sacked sporting director Mario Husillos and general manager Vicente Casado, in what seemed the latest of the Qatari's unpredictable whims.

It seems to have worked out well. Gracia's team were 1-0 down an hour into their next game at Rayo Vallecano, but turned that around to win 2-1. Since then they've won four on the bounce -- including beating Atletico at La Rosaleda before Christmas and high-flying Celta Vigo 2-0 at home on Saturday evening.

Malaga's efficiency makes even Simeone's side look profligate -- they've managed to eke out 23 points having scored just 13 times [or 1.77 points per goal]. Which even bests Atletico's 41 points with 25 goals scored [1.64]. These impressive numbers may not make for the most exciting of games, but Gracia's job looks safe for sure now.

5. Betis on the brink, again

Real Betis had conceded the first goal in 11 of their first 17 La Liga games this season -- including six let in during the first 10 minutes of games. Meanwhile, Eibar had scored first in 13 of their first 17 league outings.

So nobody was really surprised when Eibar's raiding right-back Ander Capa put the Basques ahead just three minutes into Sunday's visit to Betis' Estadio Benito Villamarin. But the way their team fell apart afterwards, going on to deservedly lose 4-0, was tough to take for the fans.

There were whistles around stadium for coach Pepe Mel's substitutions and lots of barracking for the team in general after what is now five draws and two defeats in the last seven home games. Decent away form means a five point cushion above the relegation zone [ahead of Sporting vs. Getafe on Monday night], but nobody at Betis should be complacent given the club's tendency to go into meltdown pretty regularly.

Sunday saw Mel's 200th game in charge of Betis. Although the deep lying, long running, issues at the club are not at all his fault, his second spell in charge is turning increasingly bitter.

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.


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