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Jan 14, 2013

Half-term report

Open the envelope with caution, and don't show your parents - it's the half-term report. Jornada 19 has become the traditional point at which to judge whether teams' performances so far have been unexpected or just plain predictable. We'll put the unexpected ones at the top and work our way down to the more foreseeable.

1. Betis
Pride of place goes to Musho Beti, whose song also contains the words 'eh, eh?' That's the sentiment that most accompanies Betis's surprising half-term achievement of getting themselves into the Champions league spots, especially given their poorer showing last season. That offered few reasons to assume they would be anything more than ordinary this campaign, perhaps hanging on and accumulating enough points to survive until their star Beñat was whisked off to one of the few clubs with some euros to spend.

Punching above their weight? Possibly, although the good form has not been exclusively due to Beñat. Joel Campbell has proved to be a useful loan signing, and Rubén Castro has played well - but the oddest thing about the whole venture so far is that Betis have lost five of their ten home games, picking up more points away from home.

Can their success continue? The lack of depth in the Betis squad may eventually start to prick their balloon unless some signings are made before the winter deadline, but you'd also expect them to improve at home. If they stay on a roll, you never know, but I reckon they'll finish just outside the European spots.

2. Athletic
They could have topped the half-term surprise league, but there are those Marcelo Bielsa-watchers who would say: "I told you so."

The cloud that continues to drizzle over the century-old San Mames last season refuses to go away. It seems such a brutal contrast to this time last year, when Bielsa's new regime was showing the qualities that would eventually take the Basques to the Europa and King's Cup finals. Their poor performances in both those games, after such an effervescent season, were maybe a warning sign of what was to come, and the club has been unable to cope with the double whammy of the transfer of Javi Martinez and the whole, sorry Fernando Llorente affair.

The home defeat to Rayo on Friday night means they have now lost as many games as during the whole of last season. The tension is palpable, Bielsa seems as loco as ever and, if things do not perk up, a relegation struggle seems the only logical conclusion.

3. Rayo Vallecano
One can only speculate where Rayo would be in the table if Michu had stayed. Thirty-one points at this stage of the season is the best Rayo have ever recorded in their fairly lightweight top flight history (this is only their 13th season) and, if one looks back to their last-second Houdini act last season when Tamudo's late goal against Granada kept them up, their form this campaign seems even more surprising.

There have been some heavy defeats nevertheless - 6-1 away at Valladolid and 5-0 at home to Barcelona – but, as manager Paco Jémez maintains, "to fill Vallecas, we have to entertain the folks" - and that's certainly been the case, with only one drawn game from their 19. It's difficult to say whether it can last, but they're trying to play football and, so far, it has worked.

4. Atlético
The Spanish media had a suspicion they might do well in the league this year, but not as well as this. And while it's true that Radamel Falcao will leave sooner or later and his 18 goals (seven of them penalties) are almost half the total the whole team has managed, the truth is that Diego Simeone has moulded Atlético into an organised unit, simplified their game to some extent and radically increased their efficiency and consistency - two words rarely associated with them over the years.

They have won 14 of the first 19 and won all ten home games. The only reason for not drawing more applause is that they still trail Barcelona by 11 points, but that's not their fault. Can they stay up there and finish above their Madrid neighbours? Definitely.

5. Real Madrid
In the top-five surprises? Well yes, I think so. Mourinho-watchers will say it's the usual pattern, that he has had his fill - but cast your minds back to the summer and the glow of satisfaction emanating from the Bernabéu about the future of the squad and the imminent collapse of the Barcelona empire under Tito 'who?' Vilanova.

The poverty of Madrid's defence of their title, surrendered almost before the first snow settled on the Guadarrama mountains, has therefore been surprising. They are 18 points shy of the leaders, seven behind Atlético, and cannot assume that their third place in the table is guaranteed. The damp squib draw at Osasuna on Saturday, with Cristiano Ronaldo rested and the remainder of the troops missing in action, was symbolic of the show so far. Can they salvage their season and win the Champions League? Stranger things have happened, but I doubt it.

6. Mallorca
It has mostly been woe after a shocking first half to the season, although things had been looking up before another reverse at the weekend, courtesy of Valladolid. Mallorca went three months without a victory, and their tumble into the relegation places threatened Joaquin Caparros' job, although the club probably couldn't afford to sack him.

Their eighth-placed finish last season was commendable on such a shoestring, and that is why they're high up on the surprises list. Too good to go down? Don't believe it.

7. Levante
They make the top ten if only because there were few people who expected that the pensioners from Valencia could keep things going this season after they had qualified for Europe against all the odds last season.

This season the pensioners are older, and 11 players left the club in the summer, mostly through expired contracts, with few significant replacements apart from Obafemi Martins, who has ably filled the gap left by Arouna Kone. Eighth place and an identical record to bigger neighbours Valencia is satisfactory, as is their continued presence in the Europa League. But the old guys have played a total of 30 games already this season, and you get the sneaking feeling that a top ten place might be beyond them.

8. Valencia
Why is seventh place a relative surprise? Well, probably because we get so accustomed to Valencia being Spain's 'third team' - the one always expected to chase the big two for the first few months then wave goodbye as they disappear over the horizon.

This season started poorly, and although you feel that Mauricio Pellegrino was sacked too hastily after the 5-2 home defeat to Real Sociedad, things have looked up under Ernesto Valverde. Besides, they're still in the Champions League, with PSG a beatable opponent, Real Madrid to come in the King's Cup and Ever Banega up and running again. The only way is up? I reckon so.

9. Osasuna
The fact that they are bottom of the table at the halfway stage could have registered as an even greater surprise given their seventh-place finish last season, but maybe they were punching above their weight. Raúl García, Nekounam and Sergio have gone, but their replacements have not been significant. It's going to be a long, hard slog, but they are only three points off Celta in 15th place. They just can't score goals.

10. Sevilla
Well, it's a bit of a surprise - 12th place and 22 points - but not so much for the supporters, who are growing increasingly tired of manager Michel, whom they accuse of talking a good game but not planning one, and president José María del Nido, who is about to sell a star asset once again, this time Alvaro Negredo to Tottenham if rumours are to be believed. With Ivan Rakitic complaining that the moodiness of the fans doesn't help, it's hard to see much improvement at the Nervión in the foreseeable future.

11. Barcelona
Okay - outside the top ten, but the only surprise is that they have done so spectacularly well and bounced back from last season's little blip - and all this under new management. After their latest win at Malaga - by no means a foregone conclusion - they have 55 points from a possible 57, beating the Pep team's previous record of 52. Choose your own adjectives. I've run out of them.

12. Valladolid
Tenth place is a very decent position after two seasons down in the Second Division but, of the three promoted sides, Valladolid were expected to fare best. The German Patrick Ebert has proved an unexpected star in their firmament, and Miroslav Djukic seems to be developing into a better manager than he was a penalty-taker.

13. Zaragoza
After last season's heroic escape, 13th place and 22 points seems more than acceptable. They can't afford to relax and some consistency might help, with a frustrating win-lose-win-lose pattern to their season so far. Six home defeats can be improved on, too.

14. Real Sociedad
A decent start (ninth), but you get the feeling Sociedad could have done better given the quality that has suddenly emerged from their youth set-up. With a bit more nous and ambition, they could have been in the Europa places. They might get there, but they still look a bit too green.

15. Espanyol
Many people predicted their fall from grace this season, and with only two points more than those in the relegation spots, they are hardly out of the woods.

Mauricio Pochettino, once tipped as the bright new thing of La Liga, has gone, to be replaced by the veteran Javier Aguirre, accustomed to putting out fires (and sometimes lighting them). Sergio García is a great player, but they still look short on confidence and quality.

16. Deportivo
With the club in administration and unable to bring in new blood, the veterans of Deportivo, plus Riki and the excellent Pizzi, might just turn things around (four points from the last two games has lifted them off the bottom), but 19th position at this stage is no surprise.

17. Celta
If Celta can hang onto Iago Aspas, they'll be fine - but nobody was predicting anything above a mid-table position at best.

18. Malaga
Maybe we should be more surprised that they're not in the top three, but they can still get there. Something is still missing - possibly a little more self-belief, but fifth position at half-term is more or less what we expected.

They still don't have the weaponry to worry Barcelona, as evidenced this weekend, and the financial future remains uncertain, but keeping the splendid Isco for a little longer would certainly help their cause.

19. Getafe
Are Getafe always 11th, or is that just my imagination? If they beat Granada on Monday they'll be ninth - but they'll fall back to 11th, believe me. It's their place in life.

20. Granada
In the bottom three, as expected, unless they perform well at Getafe on Monday night, and they are going to have to improve at home if they want to stay up.

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