European football roundup: The year so far in La Liga Part II
With around half the season already under our collective belts (which are harder to buckle after Christmas dinner) JOE takes a look at how things are shaping up in Spain
La Liga is on its winter break, and so it's time to sit back and take stock of exactly how things are shaping up so far. Will the title race turn into a three-horse affair, or will it be the same two dukeing it out come the end of the season? Who's in the race to stay in the Primera and try to avoid the drop to the Liga Adelante, and have fortunes turned around for a few clubs who had a poor start to the year? JOE's resident La Liga and European football fanboy /hipster takes a look through the division. Missed Part I? Check it out here.
Espanyol are a side that manage to stay in the top flight despite being shorn of their best players almost every summer. This year, they didn't do too badly in the window and managed to get Portuguese winger Pizzi on loan from Benfica, which seemed a great piece of business. He has failed to settle by all accounts, and is already looking to get a move again, with the World Cup in his sights.
Manager Javier Aguirre is a competent if not defensive-minded coach, but he has found a settled XI with Víctor Sánchez and David López finding themselves as two of the most important players to him, sitting in the midfield as a doble pivote. They're difficult to beat, but they're not free-scoring either, as their goal difference of -1 would suggest. Big things are also expected from Thievy, who has shown a lot of promise from a young age, and if he can deliver on some of it this season, los periquitos would be more than happy. They should spend this year comfortably in mid table, but with things so tight at the bottom, a bad patch could see them involved in yet another battle to survive.
They had a very difficult run of fixtures heading into the break, and ended up only winning one of their last four games, including two heavy defeats at the hands of Real Madrid (7-0) and Barcelona (5-2). However, they showed that they are a dangerous side and can score by racing into an early lead against the league leaders, only to be pegged back by Pedro's aforementioned quick-fire hat-trick. Their own Pedro, Pedro León, has scored a few goals too, but he probably won't top this pretty brilliant effort which he scored against Betis.
The Madrid side find themselves high up the table, mainly thanks to a run of four wins on the trot earlier in the season. Ángel Lafita is a player with real quality and the ability to beat people, but needs to be more consistent. Lisandro López looks a quality talent in defence as well, and his parent club Benfica will be happy with how the loan deal has turned out. They return to action against Sevilla, followed by Rayo and Sociedad, two of whom are all placed around them in the table. These games will tell whether or not they have the grit to push on and qualify for European competition this season.
One of the clubs owned by the Pozzo family, along with Watford and Udinese, they have certainly been reaping the benefits of that relationship after they brought in four players from the Italian side in the summer. Their home form has been pretty diabolical however, losing seven of their nine fixtures there so far, the worst in the league, and to top it all off they also lost on penalties in the cup to lower league opposition in the form of Alcorcón. They'll also hope that they can be better in front of goal than Youssef El-Arabi was in this particularly bad miss.
That home form stat will need to improve quickly if they want to keep their place in the table, and although they are currently 12th they are only five points off the relegation zone. Their schedule after the break also includes a run of games against teams who are only a few points behind them (Almería, Valladolid, Osasuna) as well as a tough away trip to the Bernabeu, which could see them sitting not so pretty come February.
Levante pushed Atléti right to the end when the two sides met just before the break, with Diego Costa's 77th minute goal being the decider. They had some choice words for the referee afterwards (in particular David Barral, who may see a fine as a result of his tweet where he implied the ref was bit too eager to award frees against his side), but they showed that they are capable of causing most teams in the league difficulties.
Vaya cuarteto de carnaval nos han pitado hoy !!
— David Barral (@barral23) 21 dezembro 2013
What they need to do is turn in performances like that on a more regular basis, and they have been plagued by draws this season. While that's better than a loss (clearly) there are a few results that they will feel they should have gotten more from. Their recent form has also been very poor, and while they were perhaps unlucky to get nothing from the game against Diego Simeone's side, Granada, Getafe and Athletic have all beaten them in the last few weeks.
Joaquín Caparrós spoke of his side making too many errors, and he will certainly welcome the break to try and fix a few of those before the rest of the season kicks off. Finally, if you want a really bizarre jersey for your next five-a-side game, we have to recommend Levante's unique green and pink number.
Ya podéis adquirir la nueva camiseta edición limitada en la tienda oficial de Levante.U.D un abrazo.Yo ya la tengo!! pic.twitter.com/YB2z79v14I
— David Barral (@barral23) 28 dezembro 2013
To describe the last few years at Málaga as a roller coaster would probably be just about covering it. There's no doubt that the flood of money in that suddenly dried up and almost saw the club go out of business was traumatic, but a lot of credit has to go to the group of supporters and interested parties who managed to keep the whole operation afloat. This year under Bernd Schuster has similarly been up and down. They hammered Rayo, played well against Madrid but suffered a 2-0 defeat (Ronaldo added the gloss to the score in the 91st minute), but then went and lost heavily to Celta.
In the weeks before the break, they seemed to be getting their defence in better order (keeping two clean sheets on the trot) and may well have turned a corner. With many of the big names gone, they still depend on Willy Caballero, an outstanding keeper whose exclusion from the Argentina squad is still baffling, and Ignacio Camacho looks to be settling well. He may hopefully make good on that early potential he had and at 23 he still has time on his side. The problem has been goals for the Andalusians, and there is talk of plenty of movement on the way in the winter market for Schuster, both in and out. Kameni will almost certainly leave, while José Sosa of Metalist Kharkiv is a possible arrival, although negotiations seem to be very complicated on that front.
The Navarrese outfit find themselves in the relegation places at the Christmas break, and with only one win in their last six games, conceding 12 goals along the way, it's not hard to guess why. However, one standout performance was their draw against Real Madrid, and they seemed to lift themselves for the visit of the side from the capital.
They've only won four games all season, and their away from has been poor, losing six out of nine on their travels. Real Sociedad put five past them in San Sebastián, where they seemed to be a little hapless in defence, but Jordan Lotiés and Alejandro Arribas are finding their feet in that respect, and may be able to shore things up in the second half of the season. Oriol Riera has been their star performer up front scoring seven goals so far, but with very few goals coming from anywhere else on the pitch, an injury to him could be catastrophic for their season.
Rayo have struggled badly this season, but they still try to play football in a way that excites their fans in the compact and charming stadium of Vallecas. It's a great place to watch football, and their ultras are a noisy bunch, who sing and shout for 90 minutes, no matter what the score is.
Unfortunately, they have been treated to some pretty bad scorelines so far this season. They've only seen their side pick up two wins this season at home, and their defence has been porous to say the least, conceding 40 goals in their 17 games so far. Heavy losses against Málaga, Atlético and Barcelona account for a large amount of those goals, but there are some young players in the squad who are seeing plenty of minutes and could really kick on in the second half of the year: Saúl Niguez Esclapez and Alhassane Bangoura are two of those players who look like they might improve and help the side out of trouble.
As January approaches, Real will be mulling over the fact that Xabi Alonso is out of contract in the summer and still hasn't signed any extension, meaning he's free to negotiate as of New Year's Day. Both the money and the length of contract seem to be the stumbling blocks, with Alonso looking for a wage increase and a contract of at least two years, or up to four years, depending on who you believe.
Real have already spent a lot of money on his replacement Asier Illarramendi this summer, and while new manager Carlo Ancelotti certainly wants to keep the man from Gipuzkoa in his team (who wouldn't?), there may be a bit of negotiation still to be done. For his part, Alonso's performances this season have been nothing short of superb. He steps in to win the ball back, injects a quick burst to move away from his man and find some space, then picks a pass, be it five yards or 60 yards. It sounds simple, but it is a vital role in the team, and while Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo supply goals, Alonso is the brain.
Speaking of goals, there has certainly been no shortage on that front, as their hugely entertaining game against Sevilla showed, where the final result was 7-3 in a ten goal thriller. We don't get to see that too often, so here's a quick reminder of how it all went down.
Gareth Bale was the summer's big signing, and while there were early reports of resentment in the dressing room at his inflated wages and price tag, he too seemed to be struggling to get tot grips with life in Madrid alongside his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo. That was partially down to injury, and a few goals and assists later, he has been welcomed into the fold in a very real way.
Two losses so far this season against the other top sides in the league, Barcelona and cross-town rivals Atlético Madrid, see Real sitting in third at the break, but the continued absence of Messi as well as the fact that their neighbours' squad is considerably thinner than their own will give them hope that they can close the five point gap into second place, and push for the title again. We don't expect too much transfer business from them this window, and there may well be more departures than arrivals with Álvaro Morata rumoured to be on the move.