Now that almost every La Liga team have played their first 19 fixtures, that magic moment of the football season has finally arrived: ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the mid-term review.
Based on their performances so far, all 20 competitors can be classified in the following groups:
1. The Usual Suspects: Sporting de Gijon, Racing de Santander, Osasuna and Levante.
These four teams currently flirt, or in some cases blatantly make out with the relegation zone, which can't possibly surprise anyone. Serious budget constraints led them to sell some of their best assets in the off-season (i.e. Racing cashing in on Sergio Canales), during the season (i.e. Osasuna and Juanfran), or to refrain from hiring top talent (all of them, especially newly promoted Levante). They're now paying the price. Two interesting notes: these are La Liga's worst four away teams and against all odds, none of them have yet fired their manager.
2. The Unusual Suspects: Almeria, Zaragoza and Malaga.
Almeria and Zaragoza finished the previous season on a high note, after coaching changes and smart signings brought new life into their dressing rooms. Malaga, bought by a Qatari sheikh in the summer, hired almost an entirely new team and brought in the third Portuguese manager (jury still out in Jose Mourinho) to fail miserably in Spain, Senhor Jesualdo Ferreira.
All three teams expected a quiet season in mid-table, but are now engaged in a relegation battle. Two more interesting notes: these are La Liga's worst three defences and all three have already replaced their coaches.
3. Stable Condition: Deportivo de La Coruna.
Miguel Angel Lotina's squad started the season intending to fall into the 'Unusual Suspects' category. After eight matches, the Deportivistas had just four draws to their name, and only three goals scored. In a gutsy move, Lotina switched to a 5-3-2 formation and recovered his team's fighting spirit, boring fans and opposing teams to death in the process.
4. The Bipolars: Hercules, Real Sociedad, Getafe.
Assuming you fancy a bit of gambling here and there, these three clubs have 'Stay Away' written all over them. Hercules pulled off the upset of the season so far by beating Barcelona at the Camp Nou, but then, in the midst of deep financial trouble, put together an erratic collection of Royston Drenthe-esque performances, mixing surprising wins with embarrassing defeats.
The same can be said about Real Sociedad, who indeed over-performed in their much-awaited comeback to the Primera Division, but had a couple of shocking losing streaks that could be a sign of a concern for the second half of the season. Keep an eye on Xabier Prieto, a skilled winger who's now drawing comparisons with no other than the great Matt Le Tissier, based on his loyalty to the club that raised him and his uncanny ability to score from the penalty spot.
Getafe, with a limited squad to juggle between three tournaments, were able to put together impressive displays or no-shows with no rhyme or reason.
5. Plain Underachievers: Sevilla, Atletico de Madrid.
Sevillistas and Rojiblancos could be included in the previous category, as they indeed belong in any gambler's worst nightmares, until you look at the size of their budgets and compare them to that of the three humbler Bipolars. Then you see that their unpredictability highlights their failure to get consistent results out of two loaded squads, who were finalists in last season's Copa del Rey.
After several years of having to sell their best assets in the summer, Sevilla managed to start the season retaining most of their talent (Jesus Navas, Freddy Kanoute, Luis Fabiano, Alvaro Negredo). It didn't work. Not even new boss Gregorio Manzano could steer the ship on the correct course, as the team constantly gave points away with infantile defensive mistakes which infuriated their faithful fans. Sevilla's best chance to win silverware lies in the Copa del Rey, although the side have enough resources to mount a challenge for a Champions League spot in the second half of the season.
Back in August, Atletico looked like the hottest stock in Europe. Having just beaten Inter Milan in UEFA's European Super Cup, with Diego Forlan, voted best player at the World Cup, at his peak, and plenty of attacking options available (Jose Antonio Reyes, Sergio Aguero, Jose Manuel Jurado), the footballing world smiled on the Rojiblancos. However, they quickly returned back to their old, moody ways, among endless discussions about Forlan's level of commitment and the shakiness of their back four. In any case, they are close to the Champions League spots, and, just like Sevilla, better things should be expected from them.
6. The Pleasant Surprises: Villarreal, Mallorca, Espanyol.
Villarreal deservedly occupy third spot, not only because of their almost perfect home record, but also due to their competitiveness when facing top-class rivals. After an unsuccessful coaching experience with Ernest Valverde, the Amarillos went for a home-grown option, Juan Carlos Garrido, who has recovered Manuel Pellegrini's legacy, even making it a touch more dynamic. Excellent seasons so far for Nilmar, Rossi, Gonzalo Rodriguez and Cani mean that Villarreal should play Champions League football next year ... assuming they have enough fuel to keep this up.
Mallorca and Espanyol took different routes towards mid-season success. The former, in permanent financial trouble, underwent their usual rebuilding process in the summer, selling valuable players such as Aritz Aduriz, and letting coach Gregorio Manzano go as they couldn't pay him. The apparently cheaper Michael Laudrup has been able to keep the team in the right half of the table, with significant contributions from the hard-working Jonathan de Guzman, the usual consistency of Jose Nunes and the flair of Gonzalo 'Chori' Castro. Espanyol, on the other hand, kept their coach and their squad intact, and capitalised on the form of Pablo Osvaldo, Luis Garcia's resurrection and an inspired Jose Maria Callejon to defend their newish fortress, the Cornella stadium. However, both squads are short and should suffer as the season goes along.
7. As Good as Advertised: Real Madrid, Valencia, Athletic de Bilbao
Merengues, Ches and Leones have delivered what was generally expected from them. Up until Sunday night's draw against bottom-of-the-table Almeria, and leaving aside their stink-bomb at the Camp Nou, Real Madrid were putting together a brave title challenge, led by an tireless Cristiano Ronaldo breaking scoring records right, left and centre. Summer signings Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria have brought new inspiration to the side, while boss Jose Mourinho, aiming to break La Liga's Portuguese manager curse, never fails to entertain, both on and off the pitch.
Valencia, another team with huge financial challenges, proved that there's life after the two Davids (Silva and Villa). Coach Unai Emery is slowly but surely earning his stripes as a top-team manager, while strikers Roberto Soldado and Aritz Aduritz did enough to keep Los Ches in the fight for a Champions League spot.
Athletic's decent season can be explained by one name: Fernando Llorente. His dominant performances keep the Leones in the Europa League positions, and almost more importantly, four points ahead of Real Sociedad, despite having been defeated by their arch rivals in the Basque derby.
8. Simply Irresistible: Barcelona.
Even if your maths ain't that good, Barcelona's numbers will overwhelm you: 52 points, 17 wins and 61 goals scored in the first half of the season (all of them La Liga records); only 11 goals conceded (their killer advantage over Cruyff's sides); 14 consecutive La Liga wins (tying an old Real Madrid record); and 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions. The signing of David Villa, rather than stealing some of the spotlight from Lionel Messi, has uncovered the Argentinean's stunning passing skills. Meanwhile, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta keep their impressive creative routine intact, Pedro plays like a veteran and the rest of the team moves around the stars without missing a beat.
Even with half of the season left to be played, their dominance of the tournament can't be questioned. The fact that the country's second best team by far, Real Madrid, have lost to the Azulgrana five times in a row in this competition says it all. This La Liga title is for Barcelona to lose.
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