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The La Liga mid-term report

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Roar Guru
22nd December, 2021
11

As Levante trudged off the pitch, having blown a 2-0 lead and lost the Valencian derby 3-4 and now contemplating 26 league matches without a win, La Liga’s Christmas break began.

There are a few catch-up games in mid-week, but most teams will be watching with their feet up, savouring their Christmas jamón.

As the season started, most expected a three-way title shootout between champions Atlético Madrid, perennial contender Real Madrid and a strong looking Sevilla squad.

The slow motion train wreck that was Football Club Barcelona, denuded of Lionel Messi and in a serious financial crisis, was expected to continue, with the potential for talented young sides like Real Sociedad and Real Betis to surpass the Catalans.

All that remains possible, but a few pleasant and unpleasant surprises seem in progress.

Who are the contenders, the pretenders and the surprise packets, and what’s going on at Barça?

Pedro Gonzalez

(Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The contenders: Real Madrid, Sevilla and Real Betis
With 18 games played, Real Madrid sit six points clear of second-placed Sevilla, who play their game in hand against Barça on Wednesday morning. If Sevilla can win that, having also beaten Atlético on the weekend, they might start to believe.

Real Madrid’s disappointing draw at home to Cádiz might give Sevilla further hope. But overall, the Madridistas are having a fine season.

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At some point they will have to renew their ageing squad, but the fab four of Karim Benzema, Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Carlos Casemiro are playing as well as ever.

At 36, Modrić is showing few signs of slowing down and he and Benzema have conjured some sublime goals this season.

They’ve hardly missed their departed captain, Sergio Ramos, with the Brazilian Éder Militão stepping up.

But the biggest boost for Real Madrid has been the coming of age of another Brazilian, Vinícius Júnior, who’s produced 12 goals and nine assists in 24 games, including this gem against Levante.

In third place, ten points behind Real Madrid, sit a reinvigorated Real Betis. The chances of Betis winning the title are slim at best. But I’m not prepared to write them off yet.

Manuel Pellegrini has Los Verdiblancos humming, their previously leaky defence has improved and Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir are two of La Liga’s form players.

If the old men of Real Madrid can’t last the distance, Betis are a chance of a first title in 87 years.

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The pretenders: Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad
Atlético sit 14 points behind their Madrid rivals and are limping into Christmas having lost three straight league games. They badly need a result at Granada in their game in hand on Thursday.

While Atlético has problems – the form of their normally brilliant keeper, Jan Oblak, and the continued decline of Luis Suárez – they’re not much worse than they were last season, just not as lucky.

There were several heart-stopping moments on their way to last season’s title. This season, their conservatism is being punished and the late goals they might have conceded last season are going in.

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As predicted when they were leading the league in October, Mat Ryan’s Real Sociedad have fallen out of the title race.

While they performed admirably to qualify from their Europa League group, they’ve looked knackered in the league, losing their last four games before the break. At least Ryan’s back in goal after a series of costly mistakes by the normally solid Álex Remiro.

Mat Ryan

(Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images)

The surprise packets: Rayo Vallecano and Levante
So, who predicted promoted Rayo Vallecano would be in a Champions League place almost halfway through the season?

While there’s a lot to like, Rayo are prime candidates for regression. Their home form is almost perfect – they’ve dropped just two points all season. On their travels, they’ve picked up just five points from a possible 27.

Still, it’s been fun to watch. Former Adelaide striker Sergi Guardiola has played well, winger Isi Palazón has been a revelation and the wily veteran Radamel Falcao is still class. Head coach Andoni Iraola looks like a star on the rise.

At the opposite end of the table, poor Levante look doomed. They haven’t won a league game since April and were recently knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by third-tier Alcoyano.

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While Levante’s been one of the best teams to watch in La Liga in recent seasons, there were warning signs. They were always inconsistent and defensively fragile. They’re still scoring plenty but are conceding two goals per game.

Their classy midfielder José Campaña and the wonderfully named Jorge de Frutos (fruity George) remain class acts, but there aren’t many others on their wavelength. Even inspirational captain and talisman José Luis Morales looks like he’s slowing down.

The post-Messi wasteland: What’s going at Barcelona?
Lots, actually. Ronald Koeman’s out and club legend Xavi Hernández is in. Youngsters are flooding into the first team and some of them look seriously good.

Teenage Spain internationals Ansu Fati and Pedro González have been joined by talented midfielders Nico González and Gavi, the interesting winger Abde Ezzalzouli and young striker Ferran Jutglà, who scored his first goal for the club on the weekend.

Barça still have plenty of problems, most notably a leaky defence. Samuel Umtiti is fragile, Gerard Piqué is ageing and fragile, and Clément Lenglet is a disaster waiting to happen.

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Some help for their fine young centre back Ronald Araújo should be the club’s priority in the coming transfer windows.

A Champions League place is still well within Barça’s reach but it’s hard to see them outlasting Atlético and Real Betis. It might be better for the youngsters to cut their European teeth in the Europa League next season.

What happens next?
Real Madrid wins the title, but Carlo Ancelotti’s no-rotation policy sees the Madridistas tire and Sevilla and Betis run them close.

Real Sociedad claim the last Champions League place. Atlético fade further and finish just ahead of Barça in fifth place.

Levante will, unfortunately, go down along with Alavés and Getafe, the latter of whom will be little lamented.

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