La Liga half-term report
With this weekend marking the official half-way stage of the season, it's time to take home the half-term report, and to get either a pat on the head or an admonition to face the music.
For the sake of originality however, I'll do this neither alphabetically nor on the basis of league positions, but rather on the more novel basis of 'surprise factor' - that is to say, with the most surprising top, and the least surprising bottom. Using that as the starting point, all the usual stuff should get dragged in. However, it's obvious that 'top' and 'bottom' are not necessarily positive or negative criteria in the following league table. Just thought I'd mention that.
Pablo Garcia's move to Madrid hardly presaged a better season either, but they've confounded everyone. Despite losing at improving Valencia this weekend, they've been the only side able to vaguely hang onto Barça's coat-tails, lending this season's league a semblance of competition.
Cuellar and Josetxo have been rocks at the back, with Puñal and Raul García lending a strong local flavour to a tough-tackling midfield. Webó up front has scared people with his pace and strength, and Milosevic is always likely to both make and score goals. Will they continue to surprise? The prediction for the second half sees them falling off a little, but finishing with a Champions League place for the first time in their history.
2. Athletic BilbaoSecond for all the wrong reasons. Despite several years of mis-management, principally at boardroom level, and obvious discontent at management level (Ernesto Valverde never said why he left, but was obviously fed up), nobody ever expects Athletic to wither on the vine. The Lions have been roaring in the top flight since 1928, and have rarely looked like falling from this richly deserved grace. But everything went pants from the beginning of this season, with new manager Mendilibar - the 'new Ferguson' according to Athletic's cerebrally-challenged president Fernando Lamikiz - sacked after a couple of months.
Athletic won their opening game at home to neighbours Real Sociedad, but then failed to win for the next three months. The return of the old messiah Clemente has given them some backbone, but little in the way of fresh tactical ideas. Joint bottom with Alavés at half-term, it seems inconceivable that they will finally go down - but stranger things have happened. Prediction? To improve marginally, thus avoiding the drop.
3. BetisNot only did the 'cucumbers' make it to the Champions League on last season's showing, they also played some excellent stuff in getting there. Less surprising than their immediate exit from the competition (in which they still managed to beat Chelsea) has been their awful league form - perhaps best attributed to the old syndrome of being unable to cope on too many fronts and to the injury of the excellent striker Oliveira, by far and away their key man last season. Without his runs and his imaginative forward play, Joaquin has gone from inconsistent to anonymous, Assunçao seems to have lost his touch and no-one is scoring goals.
Prediction? The win this weekend at home to Atlético Madrid may lift morale for the second half of the season, but the squad suddenly looks oddly thin. There'll be a small improvement, but they might go down. Let's say they'll just scrape it.
4. CeltaPromoted last season, most journalists were tipping them to struggle, but a second-game win in the Bernabéu seemed to set the tone of self-belief which has seen them maintain a more than decent start and finish half-term in seventh position, three points from a Champions League berth. The secret has been in the home form, with the majority of wins (7 from 9) picked up in Balaídos, but several commentators have complained that their play has been consistently unattractive.
The club seem fairly unconcerned about such views, but remain more preoccupied with the lack of points away from home, especially after such a promising start. Prediction? Form to deteriorate somewhat, but first-term showing should protect them from a free-fall.
5. GetafeLike Celta, with whom they drew at home this weekend, most people had written them off before the season began - but predicting their demise was the lazy man's choice. Bernd Schuster's teams always do well in their first-terms and anyway, the side from Madrid's suburbs had shown enough spirit last season to suggest that they would be no pushovers.
Finishing 13th last season has not proved unlucky for them this time around, in their second spell in the top flight, and indeed they led the table for three weeks in September, attracting enormous media attention, much of it centred around their dynamic little forward, Daniel Güiza. Despite dropping off a little after their splendid start, they sit in 10th spot at the half-way stage. Prediction? They'll continue to drop, but will survive to fight a third season in the elite.
Prediction? They'll continue to struggle, and avoid relegation by the skin of their false teeth.
7. Racing SantanderBegan predictably, and looked to be heading for the relegation spots, but this time to stay. However, they've surprised everyone by a sudden surge in spirit and form, beginning with an outrageous win at the Bernabéu, achieved with seven first-teamers absent.
They're 11th at the half-way stage, and you can sense the relief at a club that lost its best players in the summer (Benayoun, Javi Guerrero and Reguiero). Still, as their most committed supporters would admit, with Racing you just never know. Prediction? To finish just above the relegation spots.
8. CádizSince they have never quite given a convincing impression of having fully adjusted to life back among the elite, it's something of a surprise to see them outside the danger zone at this stage, in 15th place courtesy of two recent consecutive wins.
The problem is surely that although the defence has looked surprisingly tight, the lack of goals remains a problem , with too much weighing on the shoulders of the veteran Oli, and not enough from the useful but inconsistent Sesma. But they have a wonderful fan base, and something about their grit and enthusiasm suggests they might just hang in there. Prediction? To escape the drop - just.
9. VillarrealNow on five games without a win, they haven't quite managed to live up to the image they built last season, finishing an amazing third and qualifying for the Champions League. They're not doing badly (they lie sixth) and of course carry the merit of having qualified for the next stage of the Champions League, but they don't have quite the same spark as last season, possibly due to Forlan's rather quieter start.
But in Riquelme, they have possibly the world's greatest midfielder, a player who guarantees that the mainly modest squad around him are all inspired to follow his lead. Prediction? To improve, and finish once again in the top four.
10. Atlético MadridIt seems something of a joke to state that their awful first-term showing is a 'surprise', but they make tenth position in this table because there were some observers, this columnist among them, who thought that this season would finally see them fulfil their famous promise. But the infamous dark horses have stayed in the dark and confounded most predictions by stuttering to a mere 20 points. And all this with a side that contains genuine quality in Kezman, Ibagaza, Perea, Torres and Petrov.
Manager Bianchi has finally been given the chop, and as in the Bernabéu, the reserve team manager has been brought in as a temporary measure, to soothe the open wounds. Spain's Manchester City par excellence, it's impossible to say how much more can go wrong at the club before they finally get their act together. Nevertheless, I'll stick my neck out and tip them to improve. Expect them to challenge for a UEFA place, and to just squeeze in at the last moment.
11. Real MadridIt was hardly unreasonable to assume, back in September, that the great white leviathan would improve on last season's showing. They had, after all, kept their admittedly dodgy manager over the summer and brought in four players of substance in Ramos, Garcia, Robinho and Baptista. Owen's departure seemed of little import, but then Ronaldo's injuries and general attitude declined, Robinho and Baptista failed to deliver, Zidane was missing in action, and no-one seemed to know what to chalk up onto the drawing-board.
Internal disputes were papered over rather thinly, Luxemburgo went on his way and the recent improvement may yet prove to be a chimera. Sergio Ramos has been the only positive note, and Cassano seems an unlikely solution. Benito Floro may be a sensible addition to the backroom team, but the jury's still out on this 'transitional' squad.
Predicition? Will continue to stutter, but still have the quality to scrape a Champions League place for next season.
12. AlavésDespite the turmoil that Dmitri Piterman seems to bring in his wake, and despite the fact that it was always going to be tough on their return to the top flight, the squad has decent enough players to pull up to a position of safety. The problem has been their almost laughable inability to win at home, but as in this weekend's excellent win at Deportivo, players like Bodipo and Aloisi are capable of taking them out of the relegation zone.
Prediction? You get the feeling that under new management, the second term will be a better one. Piterman may well survive the fans' recent vote of no confidence, simply because to further rock the boat at this stage may be of no benefit to anyone. To improve, and finish around 15th.
What no-one had seen was the emergence of the excellent David Villa, signed from Zaragoza. The revelation of the season, he is not only dragging up the team by its bootstraps and scoring important goals, he is also looking as if he might be a leading light in Germany come summer. As ever, just when all seems lost at Valencia, someone comes along and breaks through the fog. Prediction: They're too tough to dismiss. Runners-up.
14. DeportivoNobody was too sure after last season's bad-tempered decline, but Joaquin Capparós has given the side new steel. Losing Luque, Fran, Silva, Donato and Pandiani looked too much to bear, but despite this weekend's set-back at home to Alavés, they look more of a unit than last season. If Valerón can get his act together more consistently, they might yet return to the Champions League. Prediction: They'll challenge, but will settle for a UEFA spot.
15. Real SociedadThe only surprise is that they lie 13th after such a wretched start. Their half-decent home form belies their poor performaces away (the worst in the league) and they have shipped more goals than anyone. In severe financial difficulties, and plagued with injuries and star-player losses (Nihat, Kovacevic, Aranburu, Brechet), they may soon begin to plummet. Prediction: Relegation.
16. SevillaOnly doing slightly worse than at this stage last season. Lots of hot air and promise from their boardroom has not resulted in anything more than a decent eighth spot at this stage, mainly built on their mean defence. Unlikely to set the league alight this year and still feeling the pinch from the exodus of so many fine players. Prediction: Mid-table finish.
17. Zaragoza Up and down like the proverbial jack-in-the-box this season, a recent run has seen them climb to a flattering ninth position. Nevertheless, the Milito brothers are proving a success, and Villa's absence is not quite so great as was predicted. Their problem remains one of inconsistency and a group of over-demanding supporters who are fed-up with manager Victor Muñoz. The atmosphere never seems too good in the Romareda. Prediction: A lower finish to the second term - maybe around 14th.
18. BarcelonaThe only surprise - and there aren't many to be recounted this season, is that they have not only managed to maintain their excellent form of last season but have gone on to improve it. If anything they're more entertaining, and despite a serious injury to such a key player as Xavi, they've carried on regardless, totting up a record first-term haul of points, and finishing the first half of the season on a run of seventeen consecutive wins in all competitions. Simply awesome, but can it last? Erm, yes. Prediction: Champions - and to beat Chelsea.
19. MallorcaIn 18th position, so no surprises there. A dull team, with a dull manager, Arango produces occasional moments of inspiration, but no-one would miss them if they went down. Prediction: Relegation.
20. MálagaEven less surprising that they're struggling. Hovering just above the danger zone, they fail to inspire confidence. Salva can still knock them in, but the overall squad looks thin. They look likely candidates for the drop at this stage.