By Sportswriter Paul Giblin
MADRID, Jan 14 (Xinhua) -- The past weekend saw the teams in the Spanish BBVA Primera Liga reach the midway point of the domestic league season: a campaign that has had some big winners and also some major disappointments, it seems a perfect time to hand out some mid-term marks.
Top of the class are FC Barcelona, who are exceeding all expectations under coach Tito Vilanova. Just as happened with his predecessor, Pep Guardiola, many doubted whether or not Vilanova would be up to the job of managing the club, but 18 wins from 19 games which have brought in 55 points from a possible 57 have proved the doubters wrong.
Not just have Barca been unbeatable, but they have played incredible football, as if the change of coach was the stimulus some players needed after four years with Guardiola.
Leo Messi has been unstoppable, but mention should also go to central midfielder Sergio Busquets who has been at the heart of their midfield mastery. Barring a disaster the title is Barca's for the taking and they must be favorites to win the Champions League as well.
Atletico Madrid also take top marks: Diego Simeone's side are second, 11 points behind Barcelona and have built on their Europa League win last season with a serious campaign in the league.
They may fail to win the league, but thanks to the goals of Radamel Falcao, the trickery of Arda Turam and the defensive solidity offered by Joao Miranda and Diego Godin, they should have no trouble in finishing in the top four and perhaps ahead of local rivals Real Madrid for the first time this millennium.
Betis have also put together a magnificent first half to the season. Pepe Mel has built a fast, flowing side on a shoestring budget with players such as Diego Castro and Benat Etxebarria playing the best football of their lives. Betis currently sit fourth and have shown that not only are they scared of nobody, but that they have no reason to be.
Rayo Vallecano are in a similar position. Most people's favorites for relegation at the start of the campaign, their excellent home form and the performances of players such as Leo Baptistao and Piti have been exceptional. Rayo may fade in the second half of the season, but they are already close to their first aim, which is to avoid relegation, which is excellent news for a club whose fans always turn out in mass and make a lot of noise: something that can't be said for all teams in Spain.
Malaga have performed bravely, especially in the Champions League, where they are into the last 16 and have held their own in the Primera Liga. These performances come despite being forced to sell players such as Santi Cazorla and Soloman Rondon over the summer amidst a financial crisis. Coach Manuel Pellegrini has done a fine job keeping up morale and forging a team spirit, but it remains to be seen whether they can overcome the effects of a UEFA ban which means that no matter where they finish next season they will not play in Europe next year.
Finally Levante's veteran side is showing last year's fifth place finish was no fluke. The second side from Valencia has also done well in Europe and qualified from the group stage of the Europa League.
Elsewhere Valencia look to be improving after a poor start to the campaign and have taken 12 points from five matches since the arrival of Ernesto Valverde as coach after a poor beginning to the campaign under inexperienced coach Mauricio Pellegrino.
However, in every class there are those who have underperformed in the first half of the course and top of that list is Real Madrid.
Real Madrid are currently 18 points behind Barcelona and seven behind Atletico Madrid having dropped 20 points this season when they dropped just 14 on the way to last season's league title.
The season has been marked by talk of discontent in the dressing room , rumors of coach Jose Mourinho's departure and indeed that Mourinho is trying to force the club to sack him. Mourinho has cut a morose figure on the Madrid dugout and his increasingly rare press conferences have left a series of barbed comments for the press to digest.
Although Cristiano Ronaldo continues to impress, others such as Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil and especially new arrival, Luka Modric, have not been close to their best and the relationship between Mourinho, the club and the fans looks increasingly like a marriage of convenience that will last as long as the club's Champions League campaign.
Sevilla have also been a big letdown as they are currently looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone rather that at qualification for Europe. Poor performances in defense and a lack of consistency from talented players such as Jose Antonio Reyes and Ivan Rakitic mean that while they have beaten sides such as Real Madrid, they have also had too many lackluster displays against side they should have beaten.
Athletic Club Bilbao supporters ended last season with the disappointment of losing two cup finals, but with high hopes that under coach Marcelo Bielsa their side would be able to go one better this season, but those hopes have been dashed.
Athletic crashed out of the group phase in the Europa League and were beaten by third tier side Eibar in the Copa del Rey, but not only that, their league form has been poor. Striker Aritz Aduriz has been the one bright spot, scoring 11 goals since arriving from Valencia, but the club has been rocked by internal problems since the summer. First midfielder Javi Martinez left for Bayern Munich, then star striker Fernando Llorente stated he would be leaving at the end of this season to create an atmosphere of instability and frustration among the supporters. Meanwhile many players look tired and way below their best and the high number of players suffering groin problems implies that Bielsa has quite simply worked them to a standstill.
Twenty one points from 19 games is virtually relegation form and he Basques need to improve and fast, but while Bielsa steadfastly refuses to change his policies, it is hard to see how that can happen while he continues in his role.
Elsewhere Espanyol are improving under Javier Aguirre, Deportivo la Coruna are starting to show signs of life under Domingos Paciencia, while Osasuna battle to the best of their abilities. Mallorca have little room for maneuver financially, while Granada also look limited despite a bust summer in the transfer market and Celta Vigo have lost steam after a promising return to the top flight.
These sides look destined to face a second half of the season battling for survival but with points at a premium they all know that a short run of wins will probably be enough to lift them away from danger.
Barca will win the league and Atletico Madrid will qualify for the Champions League, beyond that almost everything else in the BBVA Primera Liga is still up in the air.