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Brazill recall Douglas Costa; leave off Luiz


La Liga half-term report

The players quake in their boots. It's the half-term report. This weekend was the 19th game of the season, which makes it the official half-way point. Appearance of cast in order of 'surprise' factor.

1. Mallorca: Finishing the first half of the season in fourth place was not beyond their wildest dreams - let's not be condescending to a side that has made respectable finishes in the last two seasons (seventh and then ninth). More surprising has been their astonishing home form at the Oni Estadi - not exactly Spain's most passionate or atmospheric stadium. They've won all nine of their home games, but only managed one win on their travels. Aritz Aduriz has been their star man, performing well enough to bring him into the gaze of Vicente Del Bosque. Athletic Bilbao are rumoured to want him back at the end of the season. If Mallorca finish in a Champions League place, Aduriz will very probably stay put.

2. Valencia: When you see them sitting in third place, and you look at the squad they still have, you detect a certain coherence in their position at this half-way stage. But many people had written them off before the season began, perhaps expecting the exodus of players that never happened. David Silva may be on his way to Madrid in the summer, and who knows where David Villa will end up, especially if he has a good World Cup - but Valencia have overcome a massive financial crisis, a lack of faith in their manager (Unai Emery) and the feeling that the squad was too dependent on its (older) big names. The only fly in the ointment has been their weirdly poor home form (only four games won) whereas their seven away victories almost broke a club record for the half-term stage. They should now be aiming for a runners-up spot at the end of the season but their home disability may prevent this.

3. Deportivo de La Coruña: For a side that had a sensational ten years between 1995 and 2005, recent seasons have been a bit lacklustre, but the late rise to seventh position last season perhaps augured something. The loss of their excellent full-back Filipe Luis due to a long-term injury is bad news, but the squad, without any really big names, has performed more solidly than expected, and they are only outside of the Champions League places on goal difference. Wins are generally narrow affairs, the goals are hardly abundant, but they're tight at the back and don't take any prisoners. As one Spanish journalist suggested, "they don't sing you songs in the moonlight", but it's effective. They may well stay up there.

4. Sevilla: They get an early mention for the wrong reasons. Still going well in the cup and the Champions League, their league form is becoming increasingly bizarre. Most Liga watchers tipped them as the 'third horse' this season, but their alarming inconsistency, possibly due to the losses of Frederic Kanouté and Luis Fabiano for longish stretches, has condemned them to a disappointing sixth spot at this stage.

5. Athletic Bilbao: I saw them play earlier in the season at home to Atlético Madrid and their enthusiasm, as ever undimmed, seemed to mask a general lack of overall quality. But they've confounded the cynics and had a more-than-decent first half, lying eighth and only four points short of Mallorca's fourth. Still alive in the Europa League, they look as though they could progress further and make a bit of a splash for themselves. Young pup Iker Muniain is a future star who will at least guarantee future funds, and Fernando Llorente is turning into a class act. Many locals considered manager Joaquín Caparrós to be on borrowed time, but he seems to be nicely settled in the job and even claims to have learned some Basque. Oso ondo, Joaquín!

6. Villarreal: The sick man of the first half, there are signs of life, but it's been a tough first voyage in the submarine for manager Ernesto Valverde, who was always going to have his work cut out following the Manuel Pellegrini act. Ninth position is hardly tragic, given their appalling start, but with such a classy squad they should be much higher. Expectations have changed radically at the Madrigal with an average finishing position of fourth in the past five seasons. Nihat has gone, Giuseppe Rossi, Santi Cazorla and Ariel Ibagaza have been sporadic and off colour, and Joseba Llorente hasn't figured much so far this term. Marcos Senna has also been injured and age has finally caught up with Robert Pires. Nilmar looks the business, but something's not quite right.

7. Getafe: Seventh here and seventh in the league, nobody seemed too sure about their likely destiny this season after Michel seemed to keep them up last season following his late arrival. Losing Esteban Granero to Real Madrid hardly looked to be helping their cause for this term, but as with Miguel Angel Lotina at Depor, Michel has gelled an unspectacular but efficient squad, capable of beating anyone and not easy to beat, at least in the Coliseum. Their 30 points are a club record for a primera vuelta, as they call the first half here, and they're looking likely semi-finalists in the King's Cup. Michel's manager profile is on the up, which is just as well, because nobody wants him to return as a TV commentator.

8. Málaga: Last season's surprise package, maybe it shouldn't be too odd that they haven't been able to keep up appearances, but 16th at this stage - on the same points as Tenerife in the first relegation spot - doesn't augur well and wasn't a fall foreseen. Some of their football has actually been quite decent, and their defensive record is much better than the teams below them, but they've drawn too many games. Duda is a classy player, as is Jesus Gámez. Selim Benachour is rapidly improving, too. They should survive.

9. Sporting de Gijón: Still the team that causes English commentators most phonetic nightmares ('Gijón' comes over like a donkey's bray), I'm not so sure that their position of 10th is so surprising. However, they seemed to be several journalists' favourite for a struggle this season and, while they still may be proved right, a decent enough showing in the Molinón has kept up appearances thus far. The problem for the next term might be the lack of goals (only 20 scored so far), and losing Michel to Birmingham won't help the cause.

10. Almería: New manager and master of the sound-bite Juanma Lillo has improved things of late, but rather more was expected of Almería after a couple of half-decent seasons. Was it all Hugo Sánchez's fault? Probably.

11. Racing de Santander: Last season saw a slight falling-off from the euphoria of 2008, but until a few weeks ago, things for this campaign were looking dodgy and Racing looked to be in one of their terminal decline phases. Enter a new manager, enter Sergio Canales and - bingo - it is all smiles again at the Sardine Can. The new boy wonder has, of course, been snapped up by Madrid, but will stay by the seaside until the summer at least.

12. Osasuna: We're moving into the more predictable territory now. Osasuna mid-table? Yep, and that's where they'll stay.

13. Espanyol: A new stadium and some decent-looking signings over the summer (Shunsuke Nakamura, Ben Sahar, Joan Verdú) gave the squad a more balanced look than previously, but the Raul Tamudo affair seems to have overshadowed things and the team has sputtered on a wet fuse so far. But they're much too good to go down. They'll improve, but not a great deal.

14. Tenerife: They'd been out of the top flight since 2002, but they seem to belong there somehow. As such, expectations were reasonably high with a proven goalscorer in Nino and a solid enough midfield line (Mikel Alonso, Román, Richi), but it hasn't worked out for them so far. They have played some decent enough football, but their away record is horrible. It must be all that flying they have to do.

15. Zaragoza: Again, a side expected to consolidate their return, it's all going horribly wrong. They've looked very poor and are understandably next to bottom.

16. Valladolid: Hard workers, but they just seem short of class to haul themselves any higher. Could be a candidate for the drop, if Tenerife improve.

17. Real Madrid: Did we expect them to be second at this stage? Be it on your conscience, but plenty thought they would take longer to settle, at least in terms of results. Home record has been impeccable.

18. Xerez: Sorry, Xerez, but we kind of expected you to struggle. Good luck for next term, but despite a new manager with an impressive hairstyle (Néstor Gorosito) one fears that taking just a measly eight points has already condemned them to a swift return from whence they came.

19. Atlético Madrid: The perennially maddest team in La Liga has had a predictably insane first term. The entertainment value (for neutrals) has been wondrous, nevertheless.

20. Barcelona: They've lost a trophy, but it's hardly a crisis. With not quite the swagger of last season, they are still unplayable on their day (most of the time). Unbeaten this term, it's another record for the club. Entirely predictable, but that's no criticism.


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