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Jan 23, 2012

Half-term report

It's week 19, and time for the half-term report. The players quake in their sponsored boots, as the verdict is delivered on their collective performances so far. Will it result in being grounded, a temporary loss of pocket-money, or a shiny new bicycle?

As ever, the teams will appear from the top in order of the 'unexpectedness' of their league position, their general performances, or a mixture of both. So the first side to appear will have surprised us quite a lot (negatively or positively), and at the bottom of the league will be the team that has behaved exactly as everyone predicted.

1. Levante. The obvious candidate for the No. 1 spot. Nobody had predicted that this team, consisting of the oldest rockers in town with an average age of 34 - a record for La Liga (previously held by Osasuna, with an average of 31) - would be in a Champions League position at the half-way stage, three points clear of the team in 5th place. They're also still in the King's Cup quarter-final at the time of writing, although they're probably on their way out, courtesy of their richer and more famous neighbours Valencia. To top the lot, they managed a club record of seven consecutive victories, a run started by their win 1-0 home win over Real Madrid in the third week and actually managed to lead the table for several weeks before the big boys finally got their acts together. The secret? A strong and experienced defence, the craftsmanship of Josi Mari Barkero in midfield, self-belief after a good run, and a certain attitude on the players' behalf - that this is their swansong and they'll die with their boots on - if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor.

2. Villarreal. Things have never been easy for this small-town club, but they have had a tendency in recent seasons to make them look as though they were (easy). But suddenly it has all gone topsy-turvy, and they find themselves in the relegation zone for the first time at this stage since 1998 (when they survived). They have lost their manager, Juan Garrido, a club man through and through who had rescued them last season after Ernesto Valverde's indifferent spell , taking them to the Europa League semi-final and 13th place. But with the quality still in the ranks, the losses of Santio Cazorla and Joan Capdevila shouldn't have caused the problems that have since emerged. The injury to Guiseppe Rossi, however, seems to have been a further factor in the poor start, but with players of the calibre of Borja Valero, Nilmar, Marco Ruben, Bruno, Cani and Jonathan de Guzman, you can't help but think that the only way is up.

3. Osasuna. The team from Pamplona seem to have lost a bit of spark in recent weeks, but their first half to the season has been a surprising one, despite their more than decent finish of 9th last season. Four points shy of a Champions League place at the half-way stage is a situation that can fuel their dreams, with three far richer and better-equipped sides (Atlético, Sevilla and Málaga) immediately below them. They are La Liga's most exotic team, with two Iranians, a Senegalese, a Hungarian, a Serb and a Brazilian, but their tower of Babel seems fairly secure from collapse. The home factor has been important, although the recent loss to Santander (who always seem to win in Pamplona) has sown the first seeds of doubt. You feel they might struggle to maintain their form for the second half, but I see no reason for collapse

4. Málaga. Most journalists thought that this might be their year, that they would start to 'do a Man City' and gel, given that their powerful assortment of new players had needed adjustment time and that Manuel Pellegrini was the sort of manager who also needed time to make his quiet magic work. Their position of 10th at the half-way stage is therefore surprising, although for a club of such previously modest expectations, the reality of this underachievement doesn't seem to have hit home just yet, at least as far as the supporters are concerned. Injuries to key players (José Rondon and Julio Baptista), the feeling that Ruud Van Nistlerooy should really now be on the golf course (retired), and the inconsistency of Jeremy Toulalan have not enabled Santi Cazorla to really take matters by the scruff of the neck. They have also failed to perform against the big clubs, leaving a damp-squib sensation at this stage. They will have to improve, if they don't want to see their rich owners losing interest in a failed enterprise.

5. Espanyol. Another side accustomed to losing its best players every season, their coach Mauricio Pochettino is rapidly becoming a cult hero among the faithful, partly for his straight-talking manner but also for his obvious tactical shrewdness and his ability to get the most out of a fairly ordinary squad. Fifth place and three points behind Levante is a comfortable place to be. The recent home draw against Barça showed their resilience, and the fact that there are more home-born Catalans in their squad than can be found at the Camp Nou is another source for mid-term pleasure.

6. Sevilla. It's not that their season is necessarily on the rails (9th position, 26 points) but that Spain always expects more of this side, and for good reason. They have only finished once outside of the top six in the last ten seasons, and have twice finished 3rd in the past five campaigns. But times are tricky, with their president Jose María del Nido on appeal to avoid a 14-year prison sentence for fiscal corruption, the jury still out on coach Marcelino and a sense that there is too much dependence on Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas to turn matters around. Diego Perotti has promised more than delivered, and only Ivan Rakitic has proved a solid newcomer. The return of the prodigal son, José Antonio Reyes, is unlikely to galvanise a side that looks to be in decline.

7. Rayo Vallecano. Most observers thought that of the three promoted sides, Rayo would struggle the most. The club are still technically in administration, with their biggest signing to confront the new season Raúl Tamudo, a great player in his day but at 34 hardly the man to take Rayo to the heights - not that their realistic and good-humoured supporters expect anything more than survival. As such, 13th position and 22 points in the bag would just about see them safe if they can come close to repeating the feat in the second half. Given their economic circumstances, the 2-0 home win over fat-cats Málaga remains the highlight of the first half of their season.

8. Real Madrid. Come on! Did you really expect them to be five points clear of Barcelona at this stage? The reasons are two-fold; firstly because Real Madrid are better than last season, and secondly because Barcelona, despite their perennial league assault on the Bernabéu, have stumbled a little more than usual away from home. But forgetting their rivals for a moment, Madrid's league statistics are astonishing. Sixty-seven goals scored would mean the annihilation of all existing records if they were to repeat this in the second half - surely an impossibility. There is also a sense that all is not well between Mou and several of the Spanish squad heavyweights, and that despite the league position, what really matters is beating Barça. If they did it, but lost the league, you almost feel that the Bernabéu would sleep happily. Surreal but true.

9. Athletic Bilbao. New president, new manager - often an awkward combination for a good first half to a season, especially if the manager is the unfathomable Marcelo Bielsa. The start was uncertain, but things have picked up to leave the Lions nicely tucked up in 7th position with the King's Cup and the Europa League still very much alive.

10. Barcelona. Ok, I'll risk a lynching. But if it's a 'surprise' that Real Madrid are five points clear, then it figures that Barcelona's position at this stage is cause for comment, purely on the basis of the circumstances of the previous three seasons when they reigned supreme. There have been new incorporations to fit into the scheme, notably Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sánchez, but the two have fitted in with insolent ease. Put it down to Real Madrid's surge, Andres Iniesta's injury and the occasional lapsus from the world's greatest player, Mr Messi. Apart from that, I see no crisis, no reason to doubt that they can still win the lot this season.

11. Racing Santander. Got to start cutting my words down now. There's only so much space permitted. Racing have 20 points, which are 20 more than many thought they might have at this stag. No need to repeat the dire circumstances that still surround the club. They've done well so far.

12. Real Sociedad. Having survived the traditionally tricky initial year back in the top flight, their season has promised to ignite but then always encountered a rainstorm. There is quality in their ranks but a worrying fragility in their psychology. Twenty-one points is not enough really. Fail to improve on that and they may well go down.

13. Getafe. I'm not quite sure why they're always tipped to struggle, but once again they were. Maybe it's because they remain La Liga's unfashionable club, stuck out on the motorway on the margins of Madrid. But 24 points represents a decent haul after a sticky start. They should survive.

14. Granada. I really thought they'd be bottom at this stage, but their dedication to decent football and their discovery that there are plenty of weak sides around them, has meant that they finished the first half just above the relegation zone. Plenty of work to do, nevertheless. A few more loans from their Italian parent club Udinese wouldn't go amiss.

15. Zaragoza. They pulled things around last season, and despite the internal problems at the club the rock-bottom start (with only 12 points from a possible 57) is perhaps the last of our relative surprises. Javier Aguirre is gone, and new manager Manolo Jimenez has done nothing but moan about his players since he took over - with some justification. It's not looking good.

16. Real Betis. After their good start, it all went wrong for the newcomers, but the manager (Pepe Mel) survived and they've pulled up to 12th - a position you feel they'd settle for at the end of the season.

17. Mallorca. In 14th place, you feel that they could go either way if it were not for their best weapon, Joaquín Caparrós, and his ability to convert the most passive player into a more competitive beast. They'll survive.

18. Sporting Gijon. Hanging in there, as usual. (18th place)

19. Atlético Madrid. Showing signs of revival under Diego Simeone, but in general, a predictable show of underachievement for a side still full of quality.

20. Valencia. Destined to be La Liga's third club, in the current absence of a feasible challenger. As expected, that's where they are, nine points behind Barcelona and basically hoping for a better Champions League showing next season.

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