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Jan 26, 2009

Mid-term review

As the highest-scoring La Liga season in over a decade just passed its mid-point it seems a good time to analyse how each team has performed so far. From bottom to top, all 20 sides can be split into groups defining their season as a success or failure.

Dead Men Walking: Mallorca, Espanyol, Osasuna. Three traditional Primera sides in serious trouble.

Last summer, Mallorca sold several good players (Daniel Güiza, Jonás Gutiérrez, Ariel Ibagaza), and the new signings have not been able to fill the void. However, Gregorio Manzano's sides always improve in the second half of the season, and Mallorca started proving that with Sunday's 4-1 thrashing of Valencia.

Espanyol resemble one of those beautiful Hollywood actresses who abruptly age and look terrible (i.e. Meg Ryan). At this stage last season, Espanyol were fourth on the table. Since then they've gone downhill - they barely avoided relegation last season - and have continued their poor run in the first half of this term. Injuries to Raúl Tamudo and Iván De la Peña shorten their attacking options, so things seem bleak for new gaffer Pochettino, a former Espanyol player. They were lucky to get a point at Valladolid on Sunday.

Despite being bottom of the table, Osasuna are the most likely of the three to stay up: Camacho's legendary determination is progressively impregnating the team and they have improved in the last few matches. Their hard-fought point at Villarreal on Saturday was telling.

Looking Downwards: Recreativo, Betis and Numancia. Limited offensive options, cannot win an away match to save their lives, bench lacks depth. They'll suffer until the very end.

Recreativo breathed on Sunday after beating a disappointing Betis, who seem genuinely depressed to see neighbouring Sevilla consolidate as a La Liga force. Numancia proved they can make things difficult for Barça (after defeating them in the first match of the season and giving them a scare on Saturday), but they will need more than good performances against the leaders to avoid the Segunda.

Inconsistent Talent: Getafe, Valladolid, Almería and Sporting, All these teams have shown glimpses of quality, but lack the consistency to escape the spectre of the relegation zone. They should improve in the second half of the season.

Getafe have not found their rhythm yet, struggling to adapt to their new coach. However, their convincing 5-1 win against Sporting on Sunday reminded many of last year's successes.

Valladolid keep producing gifted youngsters (Pedro León should join a bigger team soon) and playing offensive football, but similar to Getafe they create more than they score. The team is inexperienced in managing close games and have lost eight points in the last 10 minutes of matches.

A calmer Hugol resuscitated a terminal Almería side that had fallen mightily after finishing eighth last season. You can tell he knows how to motivate a striker: Uche can't stop scoring since Hugo arrived.

Finally, Sporting recovered from five defeats in their first five matches. Not bad for a club that spent zero euros in signings during the summer and has 15 players from their Mareo youth school. Their supporters are simply spectacular. When the side arrived in Gijón after an embarrassing 7-1 away defeat to Real Madrid (fourth match of the season, zero points, 19 goals against) over 1,000 supporters were at the airport to welcome them back singing 'Juntos podemos' ('Together We Can'). Sporting have everything to become the feel-good story of the season.

The wannabes: Atlético, Málaga, Deportivo, Racing and Athletic. Dreaming of the Europa League, and perhaps the Champions League spots.

Three of them are just getting hot. Racing are vastly improved, with their renewed Munitis-Zigic one-two punch already in top form. On Sunday they surprised Sevilla with a courageous 10-man display. Athletic seem reborn after a difficult start. They play classic Basque football (target man, crosses from out wide), taking advantage of Fernando Llorente, the first top quality product from Lezama's youth school since Julen Guerrero. Finally, Málaga are the best performing side among the promoted and their striker Baha looks on fire.

The other two teams will have a more difficult task. Atlético look fragile again, after their 15-match unbeaten streak finished in December. Their well-known defensive issues appeared again, and now they'd be content to get a Europa League spot. Deportivo were also enjoying a good run until Sevilla beat them three times in a row in January (two coming in Copa del Rey ties). They have not won since. Their starting eleven is a fine side, but they lack bench depth and will end up paying for that.

Silver will do: Sevilla, Valencia, Villarreal and Real Madrid. Can only aspire to the second spot.

Sevilla are having one of their best seasons ever judging by the table, however their recent slump in form is threatening to undermine their campaign. Up to now they had managed to keep winning matches thanks to their striking pair Luis Fabiano and Freddy Kanoute, but their midfield suffers without summer departures Christian Poulsen and Seydou Keita. This was evident in their last few matches, including a 0-2 home defeat to Racing on Sunday.

Despite their day off at Mallorca on Sunday, Valencia have recovered several top-class players and should finish strong. Hopefully the club's complex financial situation won't have an impact on the team.

Villarreal should improve now. They have the starters and especially the bench power to overcome a somewhat inconsistent first half of the season.

Finally, a lacklustre Real Madrid have managed to climb up to the second despite the soap opera. It's time to let the new coach work, change their tedious style and prepare the team for next season (and, apparently, for Florentino's second coming!)

The Juggernaut: no need to keep rehashing it. Barcelona will only lose the title if something catastrophic happens. They not only score at will, but also protect their goal competently, probably their main advantage when compared to the Cruyff teams. Messi is going through one of those magic spells restricted to a few gifted players and is almost expected to dribble his way out of any situation. A great icon indeed for a great Liga season so far.

Final Predictions
• Champions: Barcelona
• Champions League: Real Madrid, Valencia, Villarreal
• Europa League: Sevilla, Racing
• Relegated: Español, Numancia, Recreativo.

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