While Spain’s winter break is little more than a brief hiatus these days, it does provide us with a chance to reflect on the first chunk of the season which appears to have left the league with 3 very distinct tiers.
In contrast to last season when the league was much more staggered with Valencia and Sevilla almost exclusively battling it out for 4th place and Cordoba in an unwanted league of their own at the bottom, this year everything looks much closer.
2014 Champions Atleti, who never made it above 3rd place at any point last season but were rarely below it, look set to provide the ‘big two’ with genuine competition while Valencia and Sevilla have unquestionably fallen back into the pack and are now just part of a bunch of teams eyeing a place in the top four and the Champions League next season. Meanwhile the bottom half is very congested with no side looking nailed on for the drop and all three promoted clubs at least looking competitive.
The competition in each ‘mini-league’ will be fierce over the remainder of the season and it has the potential to develop into one of the most fascinating editions of La Liga to date.
The Title Race
Team PL F A GD PTS
1 Barcelona 15 36 15 +21 35
2 Atlético Madrid 16 22 8 +14 35
3 Real Madrid 16 42 15 +27 33
Barcelona are the clear favourites for the title having demolished Real Madrid in El Clasico only last month but having thrown away leads to draw their last two league matches perhaps it won’t be the walk in the park that many had expected. Summer signings Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan will add some steel to their squad when they finally become available to play in January when Barcelona’s transfer embargo ends. They are unlikely to make a radical difference though and the way Barca coped with the 2 month absence of Leo Messi suggests one of the other two sides are going to have to do something extraordinary to deny them another title.
All is clearly not well with Real Madrid at the moment. Their expulsion from the Copa del Rey for fielding an illegible player coming so soon after their loss to Barca has left tolerance levels on the terraces of the Bernabeu bordering on breaking point. Rampant wins by scorelines of 8-0 and 10-2 in recent weeks have done little to improve the mood and their on-field troubles were highlighted once again by a 1-0 defeat at Villarreal the weekend before last. They go into the break 2 points behind their rivals and have played a game more than Barcelona, who have been involved in the FIFA Club World Cup this weekend.
Atlético Madrid missed the chance to take spot going into the festive break by going down 1-0 at Malaga on Sunday but could still prove to be Barca’s most likely challengers. They have the potential to push the Catalans hard but they will be reliant on a fair bit of good fortune. Defensively they are the best team in the league by some distance and if they can avoid injuries to their rock solid back four that has let in just 8 goals so far and looks every bit as strong as that of their title winning season 2 years, it’s hard to see Atleti losing many matches in the league. They are a little reliant on Antoine Griezmann at the other end but if the Frenchman stays fit and starts to get a little more help from the likes of Jackson Martinez and Fernando Torres, a 2nd title in 3 years heading to the Vicente Calderon cannot be completely ruled out.
Barcelona 2/9, Real Madrid 5/1, Atletico Madrid 10/1
The Race for 4th Place
Team PL F A GD PTS
4 Celta de Vigo 16 28 22 +6 31
5 Villarreal 16 21 15 +6 30
6 Deportivo La Coruna 16 25 16 +9 26
7 Athletic Club 16 24 18 +6 24
8 Sevilla 16 21 19 +2 23
9 Valencia 16 21 14 +7 22
Never can the race for the top four have been more open. Refreshingly there are plenty of contenders to fill that 4th place behind the big three but right now it is easy to pick flaws in all of them and that’s what makes it so intriguing.
Celta Vigo are currently the side in possession of that much-coveted 4th spot but will know there is still an awfully long way to go. With the likes of Iago Aspas and Nolito they are an entertaining side to watch and score plenty of goals but also have the worst defensive record in the top half and a 5-1 home defeat to Valencia last month highlighted they are still a long way off the finished article.
Their Galician neighbours Deportivo la Coruna have been the biggest surprise package so far. Having narrowly avoided the drop last term finishing with just 35 points, club legend Víctor has performed a miraculous turn-around on this team in his new role as head coach. No side in La Liga has lost fewer games than Deportivo this term but it’s hard to see them having enough quality to keep it going all season and of the six sides below the top three, they are considered the outsiders to finish in the top four.
Villarreal have once again performed their near annual miracle act whereby they sell a bunch of their best players, replace them with cheaper models and yet still maintain their challenge for the European places. Home wins against Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have signalled their quality but there have been numerous unconvincing performances too and they are again faced with the challenge of juggling European and domestic action which seemed to contribute to them falling out of top four contention after a bright start last term.
The real dark-horses could be Athletic Bilbao who already have silverware to their name having beaten Barcelona in the Super Cup in August. After a sloppy start to the league campaign they’ve won 6 of their last 10 matches to move up to 7th and of all the sides in this section of the league they will perhaps take the most momentum into the New Year. They look relatively strong defensively while Inaki Williams and Aritz Aduriz are both having excellent seasons at opposing ends of their careers at the other end of the pitch. Like Villarreal question marks may be raised over whether they have the strength in depth to maintain a challenge both at home and in the Europa League given their season started way back in July.
Sevilla have already seen off Real Madrid and Barcelona this season at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan where they have once again been very strong. However with new players still taking some time to bed in they haven’t look as solid all over the pitch as they were last term. On the road Sevilla have been awful, with just 4 goals and 4 points coming from their 8 away matches in the league so far. Clearly that is going to have to improve if they are to threaten the top four.
Finally Valencia, who did finish 4th last year and having spent in excess of €100million in the summer were favourites to do so again. However much like Sevilla new signings have struggled to immediately make their mark while the board opted to keep faith with beleaguered head coach Nuno perhaps a little longer than they should have before replacing him with the inexperienced Gary Neville, who hasn’t got off to a great start.
To Finish in the Top 4 Odds:
Celta Vigo 2/1, Villarreal 23/10, Sevilla 4/1, Athletic Bilbao 8/1, Valencia 12/1, Deportivo La Coruna 80/1
The Battle to Survive
Team PL F A GD PTS
10 Eibar 16 19 19 +0 21
11 Real Betis 16 13 19 -6 20
12 Espanyol 16 16 26 -10 20
13 Málaga 16 10 14 -4 17
14 Real Sociedad 16 17 22 -5 16
15 Getafe 16 18 26 -8 16
16 Sporting Gijón 15 15 23 -8 15
17 Granada 16 17 27 -10 14
18 Rayo Vallecano 16 18 37 -19 14
19 Las Palmas 16 12 23 -11 13
20 Levante 16 12 29 -17 11
Eibar are perhaps the most interesting case here and their dramatic decline from a similar position at this point last term, should serve as a warning to not only themselves but the other teams just below them. At the half-way mark last year they were in 8th place with 27 points. However they only picked up 8 more points in the 2nd half of the season to finish in the relegation zone, although they would ultimately be granted a reprieve thanks to the financial problems at Elche. This time around though the Basque minnows have a new coach and a stronger squad not to mention a genuine goal threat in the shape of Borja Bastón so they should be able to avoid a repeat scenario although will be keen to put an end to their current 5 match winless run in the league.
Just below them are three sides who’d consider themselves to be established top flight clubs and all three should have just enough to get out of trouble. Real Sociedad are once again the real outlier having virtually mirrored their poor start to last season but with the quality in their squad should be doing considerably better and a safe mid-table finish shouldn’t be beyond them. Like Sociedad, Espanyol have also already changed their manager with Constantin Gâlcă replacing former team-mate Sergio and he got off to a winning start at home to Las Palmas. Malaga appeared to be in the most danger of the trio but also seem to have turned a corner with back-to-back victories and their 1-0 win over Atletico on Sunday has given them a little breathing space for the first time this season although their pitiful return of just 10 goals remains a worry.
The newly promoted clubs are competing but with varying degrees of success. Real Betis are going well on their return to the top flight in 11th place and have some genuine experience and Primera Division quality with the likes of Ruben Castro and Joaquin to rely upon. They have been exceptional away from home but have only won once at the Estadio Benito Villamarín, something they’ll be desperate to improve upon in 2016. 15 points from 15 games represents a solid start for Sporting Gijon who have been fairly solid defensively as was expected and have a young side that is finding its feet with on-loan Barca midfielder Alen Halilović providing a bit of a spark. The picture is slightly more bleak for Las Palmas who haven’t been outclassed by any means but do find themselves in the relegation zone although there have been minor signs of improvement since Quique Setién took the reins replacing Paco Herrera in October.
It hasn’t been a great season so far for the smaller clubs from the Madrid Community, neither of whom were really involved in the relegation scrap last term. Rayo Vallecano are still doing their thing, which generally means a fearless attacking approach which is pleasant to watch but is increasingly failing to get results. It will take more than a 10-2 mauling at the Bernabeu for Paco Jémez to change his approach you feel but if results don’t improve the Rayo board may opt to change him. Getafe changed their manager in the summer with Fran Escribá coming in for Pablo Franco but any improvements have been minimal in truth but they do at least go into the break having lost only 1 of their last 5 league games.
Just outside the relegation zone as we stand are Granada, one of the pre-season favourites for the drop although the Andalucian club are more than familiar with that tag. José Ramón Sandoval instigated a dramatic late escape when he took over at Los Cármenes in May and he has helped introduce a more attacking philosophy at the club although just 3 wins from 16 matches so far this term indicate the results have been mixed and another nervy relegation scrap looks on the cards. Currently propping up the division are Levante, who replaced manager Lucas Alcaraz with Rubi in October but have only won once since then taking just 5 points from 7 games under the 45 year old, who may already be feeling the heat. The Valencia club’s 6 year stay in the top flight has never been in greater danger.
To be relegated Odds:
Levante 4/11, Las Palmas 4/6, Granada 6/5, Sporting Gijon 6/4, Rayo Vallecano 3/1, Getafe 10/3, Real Sociedad 15/2, Eibar 10/1, Real Betis 12/1, Malaga 12/1, Espanyol 12/1