La Liga half-time: Real lead but cracks show

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It’s half-time in the season, the half-way stage or the ‘ecuador’ as the Spanish call it. Nineteen down, nineteen to go and the destiny of the title is not as clear as it appeared to be when Real Madrid were riding the crest of their pre-Japan pomp. Down below, at the other end of La Liga, things look rather more predictable, but football’s a funny old game. Some teams emerge from their bleak mid-winters into flowering springs, confounding columns like these that seek the patterns that condemn, the cold statistics multiplied by two. Bottom club Osasuna have managed nine points thus far, with arithmetical logic suggesting they’ll finish on eighteen. Last season Sporting needed 39 points to effect their great escape, and so the boys from Pamplona would appear to be dead and buried. But it never quite plays out like that.

But let’s return to the higher end of the table. Real Madrid are deservedly the ‘winter champions’, but they staggered over the line as opposed to bursting the finishing rope. Their 2-1 win over Malaga was the perfect example of how the dynamic of football almost always changes these days, due to the simple logic of fatigue and attrition. Madrid’s record-breaking 40-game undefeated run was most impressive, but it has failed to put them over the horizon. Their game in hand (away to an improving Valencia), may not be the ace card it once appeared to be. More seriously, Gareth Bale remains on the sidelines, Luka Modric, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal are all out for a month, Karim Benzema looks slow and uninspired, and Cristiano Ronaldo looks more like ‘The Worst’- certainly with regard to his general play and energy levels. Alvaro Morata has either been deprived of the chance to build up form, or has simply not taken the opportunities when handed to him, and something must be wrong when the team’s centre-half, Sergio Ramos, is the club’s second top-scorer with six in the league and eight overall. Indeed, he saved the day again on Saturday, scoring both goals against Malaga. If Captain Marvel gets injured, then as Chicken Licken remarked, the sky may fall in.

Their season is beginning to look awkwardly like that of 2014-15 under Ancelotti, the last time they were leading at this stage. After a wonderful first half to the campaign, things went awry and Barcelona caught them with a slow but scary inevitability. Then again, for those who prefer to be optimists, Real Madrid have been winter champions 33 times since 1928, and have gone on to win the title 22 times in those circumstances. We shall see, but by this time next weekend they may be out of the cup, having lost the first leg last week in the Bernabéu to Celta. It’s one less competition to worry about, but their trophy-hungry followers don’t tend to think like that. Elimination will be mourned, and the fall-out could get serious.

In general, the top section of the table looks fairly familiar. The three usual suspects are there, but Sevilla have sprung the main surprise this season, sitting pretty in second place on 42 points, a club record for this stage of the campaign, and one that is even better than when they last won the title, way back in 1946. Last season under Unai Emery they finished 7th on 52 points, but this season – sold as a transitional one to their fans in August – is turning out to be very interesting indeed. Five big wins on the trot (including one over Real Madrid) have earned them the right to be considered title contenders, and unlike Madrid they seem to be on the up, difficult to beat and full of resolve and power-play. On Saturday they were subjected to a mini-revival of their hosts in Pamplona, and were trailing for most of the game in a hostile atmosphere until they turned the game around and nicked a 4-3 win. Osasuna may be struggling, but Sevilla’s ability to dampen their hosts’ enthusiasm and desperate resolve was highly impressive. They’re still in the Champions League too, and entertain Leicester, late February. It’s not inconceivable to see them in the quarter-finals.

As for Barcelona, who ended the first half of the season by thumping Eibar 4-0 in Ipurua, the jury is still out. So are Sergi Busquets and Andres Iniesta, two absences which may prove costly in the next few weeks, although their next real challenge of note comes in late February when they visit Atlético Madrid in the Calderon. It won’t worry them too much just to stay in contention, and wait for Real Madrid to stumble – particularly as the latter have lost a greater number of significant players. Barcelona have certainly not been themselves, in the sense that their game has undergone a slightly awkward transition from possession to pressing, with nothing much in-between. But they still have the MSN. They would benefit in the short-term if they knew for certain Luis Enrique’s intentions, as well as Leo Messi’s (yet to renew his contract), but they may suffer more from the absence of Busquets, with no natural replacement in the squad. This all sounds good for Sevilla, of course. It’s difficult to spot any storms on their particular horizon.

Atlético seem to have ridden their short storm of poor form, and although their defence has lost its non-porous invincible look they still have the second best record in the league after Villarreal and are still involved in all competitions, Champions included. It’s not so tragic, in 4th place, six points shy of Barcelona, with that home game against them to aim for in February. Never count them out. If it’s grit you’re looking for, then they have it in bucketloads, as evidenced by their hard-fought 2-2 draw in San Mames on Sunday night. Unlike their Madrid neighbours, you feel that they might have a better second half to the season, although the injury to goalkeeper Jan Oblak is a potential blow.

The challenge immediately behind them is from Real Sociedad, also with 35 points and the other revelation of the season. Their dedicated but rather pessimistic supporters had not seen this coming, and not only has their football at times been splendid but they have unearthed two new stars from their ever-productive youth set-up, the tireless full-back Yuri Berchiche and the wonder-kid Mikel Oyarzabal, a 19 year-old who plays with the maturity of a 30 year-old. He won’t stay long in San Sebastián, unfortunately – another player destined to add to the club’s coffers as opposed to their trophy collection. Asier Illaramendi, misunderstood and under-used at Madrid, is also playing out of his skin and is currently the best holding midfielder in La Liga. Can they grab a Champions League spot? It probably depends on how well Atlético fare, since Villarreal appear to be on the crest of a slump, losing 2-0 at home to Valencia on Saturday night.

Of the three sides who came up last season, Alavés have certainly made the better fist of things, accumulating a respectable 23 points and looking on the point of qualifying for the King’s Cup semi-finals. They’ve only managed that once before, in 2004 when they were in the Second Division, oddly enough. Osasuna, raced by financial problems, are rock-bottom and look destined to return to Division 2, but Leganés, in their virgin season in the top flight, have shown some spirit and have a 5-point cushion above Sporting, in the third relegation spot. Their spirit has compensated for their lack of quality, and they have managed to build a solid team ethic despite being propped up by eleven loan players – 45% of their entire squad. They should survive, as long as they can improve their home form (only one win so far).

Any predictions as to future tendencies? Valencia, Sporting and Celta look as though they might improve, in their respective situations, whereas Betis, Malaga and Deportivo seem to be heading for the darker depths of La Liga’s ocean – to add to the more illustrious Real Madrid, bobbling up there on the surface, but with an increasingly leaky boat.

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