Saturday, February 03, 2007

Half Time In La Liga

Well the Spanish league is actually slightly over the half-way mark for this season, but it seems like a good moment to review the assessment I made back in August. Barcelona are out in front as predicted, but in no sense are they running away withthe league; with 20 games played they have an advantage of just 1 point over second placed Sevilla. They have not been playing very well recently, and part of this can be attributed to injuries to key players, notably Eto'o and Messi. However, that's not a good enough excuse for a club with the size of squad and resources that Barça have. Maybe we need to add the Ronaldinho happiness factor, the always smiling Brazilian looked distinctly unhappy the last time I saw him interviewed on television. Perhaps there is nothing to worry about, it has been a feature of the last couple of seasons that Barça have periods when they seem to lose their fluency; yet in the end they open up a significant advantage over their rivals. Both Messi and Eto'o are close to match fitness, so maybe that will put the smile back onto Ronaldinho's face.

In second place, Sevilla have been the team that has put the most pressure on Barcelona, and despite my prediction that they don't have the depth to maintain the challenge they seem to be holding up well. However, when they have had the chance to take the initiative and open up a lead at the top they have never capitalised on it. Vertigo has prevented them from setting the pace when their rivals have been dropping points quite freely.

Which brings us to Real Madrid, and I could probably dedicate a significant post solely on what has been happening at this club recently. With Real Madrid things are never boring, as one "crisis" closes then you can almost be certain that the next one is just a few days away. Now of course you need to take into account that the definition they use for a crisis is not one that supporters of most clubs would apply. Losing two games in succession is usually enough to provoke one, although it has to be said that the club is currently undergoing a significant transition both on and off the pitch.

The era of the "Galacticos" has been effectively buried as Fabio Capello clears out the players he doesn't rely on, although ironically there are now rumours that he might have to recall Beckham despite having categorically stated that he would never play for Madrid again. Ronaldo has finally gone back to Italy, and if Cassano hasn't followed him it is because nobody is prepared to pay good money for a player who just doesn't deliver. For the moment Capello is getting his way, and the result so far is a defensively solid and thoroughly boring team; Madrid have scored just 4 goals in their last 8 games. Only Van Nistelrooy has provided any goals for them this season, as Raúl continues to disappoint; despite the occasional sign that he has regained some interest in his game. They are third in the league and still very much in the race, but that has much more to do with the failings of their rivals than the strength of their own performances. Off the pitch, the legal battle over the club presidency continues, although Ramón Calderón was confirmed last week as club president after a Madrid court rejected counting the postal votes that might have changed the result of last year's election.

In fourth place come Valencia, who I fancied to do better, although they are are currently only 6 points off the top spot. The reason why they are not doing better is principally due to a disastrous run in the autumn, when they suffered a genuinely serious injury crisis. In the last few weeks they have been the most consistent performers in the league, but so far that has just been enough to get them back into the race. There are also frequent rumours of problems between coach Quique Flores and some of the players, but the team functions well when they have their key players available.

Behind Valencia come Atlético Madrid, who seem to have acquired something of the Real Madrid habit of picking up points even when they are not playing very well. That has been enough to keep them as contenders, although they need to improve significantly if they are going to maintain a serious challenge to the clubs above them. The nearest team to Atlético, and probably the only other team that can think about a top four finish is Zaragoza, who seem to be getting better as the season progresses, and have a reasonable chance of eliminating Barcelona from the Spanish Cup having won the first leg. I don't want to downplay the possibilities of Getafe, who have the same points total as Zaragoza, but at some point the depth of your squad has to affect the possibilities of the team. Getafe have become the team that many Real Madrid supporters temporarily claim to follow whenever their true team becomes submerged in the latest "crisis".

Down at the bottom there is not much hope for Real Sociedad or Gimnastic, who are already 8 and 9 points respectively from a safe position. With the newly promoted Gimnastic there is no great surprise, Real Sociedad have had much finer moments and their current situation is the sad culmination of a dramatic decline in recent seasons.

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