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Half-Term Report

Oh dear. Only nine goals to celebrate this weekend past in Spain's top flight, twenty less than were scored in the English Premiership and half the tally notched up in that traditional haven for the aficionados of low scoring, Serie A. And on top of that, one side (Barcelona) scored one-third of them. Who said that La Liga was the most exciting in the world? Well - please don't stop reading the column.

Things will improve, although I feel duty-bound to inform you that the weekend just gone was the worst ever in the history of the league, formed in 1928/29. The dullest weekend previous to this one was the blighted one of 'Jornada 25' in the year 1973, when the top division nets were perforated a measly eight times. But mathematics being what they are, the 18-team league that day dictates that the average score this weekend was lower. Don't get your calculators out - I've already done it.

I didn't get to see many of the games because I was in Lapland until Sunday (as you do), but I was back to see the flood of goals on the summary programme late Sunday night. And by the way - I tried hard to get a snap of the local football team's stadium up there (Rovaniemi) but the retractable roof was closed and covered in snow, and outside the taxi it was 22 below. Global warming? Tell it to the reindeers.

A lack of goals is not necessarily a bad sign though, since there is something resembling a real competition this season, particularly when you look back at last year's one-horse race. For all the apparent crisis at the club, Real Madrid (knocked out of the King's Cup on Wednesday just as they seemed to be on the turn) are joint leaders with Barcelona and Sevilla, all three being on 38 points at the half-way stage. Some crisis eh? It's still all to play for.

But instead of writing a summary of the first half of the season and peering into the crystal ball for the second, let's look at the twenty sides in La Liga as they take their half-term reports home to mum and dad. In their reports you will be able to see implicitly how they have performed relative to expectation, and whether they're likely to graduate this summer with honours or repeat the academic year in a lower-grade class. The pecking order reflects the club's positions, after last weekend's games.

• 1. Barcelona: Still top of the class, but only just. Bright and talented, but some signs that the success and praise of the last two seasons are going to its head. Jeered off the field this weekend despite beating bottom club Nastic 3-0, the Camp Nou regulars are reminding the players that it is obligatory to win, but in style. Anything less is sacrilege. Lots of absences through illness and injury this term, but should pick up as winter fades and Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o return. Manager Frank Rijkaard is still the epitome of cool, but even he showed he is fallible by thumping the plastic window of the dug-out during the recent humiliation at Espanyol. Mark: B+

• 2. Sevilla: Some things were expected of them, but they have exceeded all predictions. Dropped off a little recently, as if they are gathering strength for another long-term assault on the title, but they have nevertheless surprised the doubters with some amazingly entertaining displays, and victories over their nearest rivals. The team everyone (apart from Betis) wants to win the title, it may prove just beyond their reach. Good at home, they'll need to get a little meaner on their travels. Tough-guy manager Juande Ramos is on Chelsea's agenda, should Mourinho leave. Mark: A

• 3. Real Madrid: Steeped in transitory paranoia, wading in a crisis of their own (and the press') making, it's impossible to tell which way they will go. The last of the galactic ones seem to be on their way out, but even that is unclear at the time of writing. Raúl has spoken, and Raúl says that David Beckham and Ronaldo should be brought back into the fold. Stranger things have happened, but it's been great soap, a veritable theatre of the absurd. The weird thing is that they're joint top, and still alive in the Champions League. They've been naughty boys, but the headmaster is prepared to forgive. New boy Fernando Gago looks good - and seems to be the first sensible signing since Sergio Ramos. Don't write them off just yet. Mark: B-

• 4. Valencia: They've had an astonishing amount of injuries to key players throughout the season - and Asier Del Horno is yet to make his debut. Nevertheless, they've just won six games on the trot (equalling a club record) and are only two points behind the leading pack. They could easily win it, now that Carlos Marchena and David Albelda are restored to defence, and Roberto Ayala seems to be recovering his past form. You just can't write them off. Mentally and physically strong, if you see longish odds at the bookies, place your money on them. New star player - David Silva. Mark: A+

• 5. Atlético Madrid: Despite an indifferent start, the overall quality of the league is perhaps apparent in the fact that they are still in with a shout, at least statistically speaking. They managed to (just) overcome 7-man Osasuna this weekend to move into 5th place, three points behind the leaders, but realism suggests that their inconsistency will reduce their ambition to hanging onto a Champions League place. New manager Aguirre has disappointed with his conservatism, and the much-hyped Kun Aguero has not really lived up to billing. But time's on his side. Atlético have not had such a good half-term since the double year of 1996. But don't get too carried away. Mark: B

• 6. Zaragoza: One of the surprise packages, no-one expected them to be doing so well at this stage of the season, despite the obvious quality in their ranks and the addition this season of Pablo Aimar. They should sustain the good first term, get into the UEFA, and get a weekend away to EuroDisney, courtesy of their proud parents. Mark: A-

• 7. Recreativo de Huelva: It's never been as good as this, going right back to the 1880's. The league's first adventurers are at last looking as though they will stay up, having been relegated in each of the two previous seasons in which they managed to clamber up to the top class. Highlight of the season, or of their existence, was surely the 0-3 drubbing of Real Madrid in the Bernabéu. Mark A+

• 8. Getafe: Another pupil who was expected to struggle in the top class, but who has adapted remarkably well. Has certain lapses of concentration, and teacher Bernd Schuster has occasional delusions/illusions of grandeur (such as managing Real Madrid), but he has made the team into one difficult to beat, and they have the best defensive record of the first term, with only 13 goals conceded. Nevertheless, Dani Güiza up front remains their star turn. Last season they finished 9th, the best in their history. This season they're on track to better that. Mark A

• 9. Osasuna: Last season went like a dream, only spoiled by manager Javier Aguirre's departure to Atlético and the failure to progress beyond the qualifying stage of the Champions Cup. With new manager 'Cuco' Ziganda, the ex-Bilbao striker, they started poorly, but things are picking up. Roberto Soldado, on loan from Real Madrid, looks a class act, and will probably return to the Bernabéu next season, but for now he's the pride of Pamplona. Expect them to finish lower, but not a bad first term, all in all. Mark B

• 10. Espanyol: Another class with a new teacher (Ernesto Valverde), you can never be quite sure what Espanyol are going to do. It all depends on whether Raúl Tamudo is fit and whether Ivan De la Peña is in a good mood. Keeper Carlos Kameni seems to be back to the form which propelled him into Alex Ferguson's note-book two years ago, and who knows, they could finish even higher. There's a feel-good factor to the club at present, and the win over Barça seems to have unlocked a whole new jack-in-the-box of confidence. Mark B +

• 11. Villarreal: Some recent signs of improvement, but the big disappointment of the season. New signing Kahveci Nihat is injured and has hardly figured, and last year's man for all seasons Juan Riquelme is having one of his dark periods, dropped to the bench and clearly in dispute with the manager. He could always go to Bolton. If Sam Allardyce can tame Nicolas Anelka (and make him smile) he might succeed where the rest have failed with the moody Argentine. Mark: C

• 12. Racing de Santander: It's thirteen seasons now since Racing finished in the top ten, though gigantic forward Nikola Zigic is doing his best to make sure that this campaign will be the first for many in which the club has not had to struggle against relegation. Twenty-five points is a decent haul for a side usually dismissed as relegation fodder. Mark B-

• 13. Deportivo: Were plummeting in free-fall before a recent fillip, in the guise of Real Madrid, led them to believe in themselves again. Forward Javi Arizmendi has surprised people by his progress, having led a fairly undistinguished career so far, and with the excellent Juan Carlos Valerón back in the squad things could be on the up. Expect them to improve second half. Mark C+

• 14. Celta: They surprised people and themselves by their 6th place finish last season, but reality seems to have caught up this time around. Expect them to struggle second half. Need to contribute more in class, and show a little more enthusiasm. Mark C-

• 15. Mallorca: Twenty points at this stage is more than most expected of them, but their greatest hope for survival resides in Ronaldo and Antonio Cassano taking up the advice that a supporter's poster announced in last weekend's game against Madrid: 'Ronie and Cassano - come to Mallorca. You'll be less pissed off here. Lots of nice girls and ensaimadas await you!' Mark: C

• 16. Athletic Bilbao: The recent injection of youth is a risky but bold long-term policy which ignores the need for short-term solutions. But the club are fighters, and new manager Mané seems to have brought some long-awaited coherence. They should survive, but only just. Mark: C-

• 17. Levante: Hovering just over the drop-zone, it's hard to see them improving. The basics aren't quite in place and there seems precious little quality in the squad to get them out of the mire. The summer exams may prove a bit too tough. Mark C-

• 18. Betis: With Luis Fernández on board, there's always hope, but it's been a traumatic first term. Mark: D

• 19. Real Sociedad: As the press continue to remark, they smell relegation. The loan signing of Savio might help, as did the late and propitious arrival of Mark Gonzales from Liverpool last season, but otherwise it's looking pretty desperate. A team down on their confidence and down on their luck. Mark: D

• 20. Nastic: Better than their position suggests, the only way is up. Javier Portillo, once a rising star at Real Madrid, was expected to do greater things, but has largely disappointed in a struggling team. They deserve more than their measly nine points, but the folks will have to keep them in and force them to do their homework if they're to have a chance of staying in the top class. Rubbing shoulders with better pupils has improved them, but not enough. Mark: C-

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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