By Noah TanFollow @@Noah_Tan
With the La Liga winter break about to end, we take a look at the movers and shakers of the season so far.
The title chasers
Quite undoubtedly the best team in the Spanish league, if not the world, at the moment. The Blaugrana have been irrepressibly good, stylishly sweeping all comers away with ease. To demonstrate their absolute dominance in the La Liga, Tito Vilanova's men have amassed an amazing 49 points out of a possible 51 in the first half of the season, opening up a massive nine point gap at the top of the table in the process.
Of course, it is not hard to win games with the magnificent Lionel Messi in the ranks. The diminutive Argentinian has been instrumental for them once again this campaign, leading them to victory after victory, and the 25-year-old currently leads the goal-scoring chart with 26.
But Barcelona are not just only about Messi for he would not be as deadly without a brilliant supporting cast; Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas have played their role as the auxiliaries in the team to perfection and helped ensure that the Catalan giants remain firmly on course for the title this season.
Atletico Madrid - 2nd
Given that the La Liga has often been derided, not without justification, as being a two-team league, it has been pleasant to see Atletico disrupt the "established" order to mount a serious challenge for the title this season.
Under the guidance of Diego Simeone, Los Rojiblancos have managed to meld together, impressing observers with their exciting counter-attacking style of football and proving difficult to break down (17 goals conceded so far, the joint second-lowest in the league).
Much credit must be given to Simeone, who rightly recognised the need to build his team around talismanic striker Radamel Falcao and succeeded in doing so. Flanked by the likes of Diego Costa, Adrian Lopez and Arda Turan, the Colombian striker has thrived in his role as the main attacking thrust of the team, his 17 goals (in 15 appearances) helping the Madrid-based club to several key wins during the first half of the season.
However, Simeone's men have not coped well in high-pressure encounters, choking when coming up against Barcelona (losing 4-1) and Real (losing 2-0), something the Argentine tactician will be looking to rectify in the second half of their campaign.
Real Madrid - 3rd
Last season was supposed to be a watershed moment for Real; Jose Mourinho's men finally broke Barcelona's stranglehold on La Liga by winning the league title in record breaking fashion, eventually finishing the season nine points ahead of the Blaugrana.
Everyone expected Los Blancos to pick up where they left off when the league campaign began again in August. Unfortunately for Real, things have veered horribly off track. They are currently a near insurmountable 16 points behind Barcelona, having picked up only 10 wins despite strengthening their squad with long-term target Luka Modric during the summer whilst keeping the bulk of their key players from last season with them.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for Los Blancos this season (even a manager as astute as Mourinho has failed to do so) but a plausible reason for their current malaise may very well be due to dressing room discontent, with star winger Cristiano Ronaldo having hinted strongly that all was not well between him and other members of the team.
This ‘unrest' appears to have severely negated the influence of the Portuguese captain, who has only scored 14 goals so far this campaign (on its own, 14 goals from 17 games is a very healthy return for a winger, but pales in comparison to the 27-year-old's 46 goals from 38 games last season).
With Real failing to click as a unit and Ronaldo unable, or unwilling, to conjure up his magic, Mourinho's men have effectively written themselves out of the title race. The best they can hope for would be to finish ahead of crosstown rivals Atletico in the table in order to at least retain the bragging rights to being the main team in Madrid.
The Champions League hopefuls
The rise of Real Betis in two short years has been nothing short of meteoric. Having only been promoted to La Liga last season, no one would have believed that they would find the Béticos embroiled in a battle to secure qualification into European competition this campaign.
A mere three points behind Malaga, Pepe Mel has utilised the craft and cunning of strikers Ruben Castro and Jorge Molina to great effect. With only a handful of genuine challengers for the last Champions League slot, the club could be forgiven for dreaming of securing a spot in the top tier of European club football next season.
The Granotes have grown from strength to strength since re-joining the top flight of Spanish football in 2009, finishing a respectable 6th place last season and securing qualification into the Europa League. However, with Malaga ineligible to take part in European competitions next season, Levante will undoubtedly try to go one better this year.
While they are not the ‘prettiest' team to watch, Levante have been infused with a fighting spirit by coach Juan Ignacio Martínez which makes them a real handful for any team in the league.
The relegation battlers
The fight for survival in the top flight of Spanish football this season is shaping up to be one of the tightest in recent memory. No less than six teams are currently jostling to avoid being mired in the relegation zone.
The situation looks especially bleak for Deportivo La Coruna. The newly promoted side have looked bereft of any confidence in recent times and are in serious danger of making a swift return to lower division football. Above them, Osasuna, struggling to find any sort of rhythm in their play, have not fared much better, with José Luis Mendilibar men's constant failure to hold on to leads costing them precious points.
Espanyol have shown signs of revival in recent times under new manager Javier Aguirre, who has led the club to a four game unbeaten run in the league, picking up three draws (one of which including a credible 2-2 draw with Real) and a win in the process.
Celta Vigo, Mallorca and Granada may lie just outside the relegation zone at the moment, but they are all perilously close to entering it, with Celta ahead of Espanyol only on goal difference, and both Mallorca and Granada just one point away from entering the bottom three.
The notable mentions
Quite a few predicted Malaga, embroiled in off-field financial issues, to struggle this season, but Manuel Pellegrini's men have exceeded expectations and currently sit fourth in the table having picked up 31 points so far. Despite being forced into the summer sale of playmaker Santi Cazorla to Arsenal, Malaga still remain a threat, with Pellegrini shrewdly adding to his squad with the likes of Javier Saviola and Roque Santa Cruz.
However, it is the revelation of attacking midfielder Isco which has proved to be the biggest reason for the Qatari-owned club's success. The 20-year-old's sterling performances for the club have led him to being linked with a move to several top clubs in January, but there is no doubt Pellegrini will do all he can to keep the precocious playmaker at the club.
Unfortunately, as punishment for the club's financial fair play violations, Malaga will not be able to compete in Europe the next season. There is no doubt however, that Pellegrini will want to finish as high in the league as possible.
Elsewhere, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao can lay claims to being the underachieving team of the season, failing to impose themselves in the league despite possessing some immensely talented players.
Valencia have been dreadful. Los Che were tipped to be genuine contenders for a Champions League spot this season but currently find themselves in mid-table mediocrity instead, and will hope new manager Ernesto Valverde, who replaced Mauricio Pellegrino in December last year, can find the solution to lift the club from their current gloom.
Bilbao have yet to fully recover from the sale of their midfield engine Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich in the summer, and with manager Marcelo Biesla's insistence on leaving Fernando Llorente, the club's top scorer last season with 17 goals, on the bench owing to a contractual dispute, Los Leones have failed to recapture the same attacking verve which made them one of the most feared teams in the league.