Andy Mitten

Barca and Real in league of two

Andy Mitten

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Barcelona are Spain's winter champions - a nebulous honour awarded at the halfway point in the league season after each team has played each other.

Sunday's 4-1 victory over Malaga saw the Catalans go a club record 28 games unbeaten and they have gone on to win La Liga on eight of the last nine occasions that they have bagged the winter crown, the exception being in 2007 when Real Madrid enjoyed a late surge while Frank Rijkaard's Barca stuttered.

That neighbours Espanyol prevented them from taking the title in the last minute of the penultimate game made it even harder to take for Barca.

Rijkaard was gone within a year, to be replaced by Pep Guardiola, the current Barca coach who has won the league in each of his first two seasons in charge. He is hoping to emulate Johan Cruyff's 'Dream Team' of Koeman, Romario, Stoichkov, Laudrup and Guardiola which won four consecutive titles in the early 90s.

Jose Mourinho claims that he's satisfied with his side's progress so far and aims to become stronger in the second half of the season. History is on Real Madrid's side: in 2003, relative minnows Real Sociedad were the winter champions before being pipped to the title by Madrid. Conspiracy theories still rage on the back streets of San Sebastian as to why La Real lost out on the league that year.

Barca have won 17 of their 19 games so far, Madrid 15 - then there's a nine-point gap to the chasing pack led by Villarreal. That is only likely to increase and provide the kind of statistic which does La Liga no favours. The gulf between Madrid in second and Valencia in third last season was 25 points; in terms of points, Valencia were closer to the relegation places than the team above them.

Unai Emery's side started this season brightly and briefly led the table. They're now fourth, a position which would suit them and enable Los Che to continue playing Champions League football. Until they sell the Mestalla and move to their new, currently half-built stadium, Valencia cannot hope to compete with the big two like they did in the early part of the Noughties.

"We've played well and we're reaching our objectives," goalkeeper Cesar told us. "We're among the leaders in La Liga and we've qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Our aim is to finish in the top four in the league so that we can play in the Champions League again next season.

"Realistically, there are six teams fighting for four places. Of course we'd like to win the league, but Madrid and Barcelona are playing at a higher level to the rest of the teams."

Those six teams are Barca, Madrid, Villarreal, Valencia, fifth-placed Espanyol and Atletico Madrid in sixth. Espanyol have been the surprise of the season so far and their outstanding home form has given them a real chance of a top-six finish and European qualification. Atletico remain as consistent as ever, losing 4-1 at mid-table Hercules two weeks ago before bouncing back with a 3-0 win over a Mallorca side that were above them on Monday night; Mallorca's strength remains their home form.

Sevilla have been the biggest disappointment so far. The side which has finished in the top six in each of the last seven seasons and that pushed the big two to the title in 2007 languishes in 10th, having lost more games than won.

They aren't a bad team and boast the fourth-best away record in the league, but are playing poorly and have lost six of their last eight games despite an array of attacking talent including Fredi Kanoute, Luis Fabiano, Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas. One problem is that too many of them have been absent through injury - the occasionally sublime Navas has started just five of their 19 games, while Fabiano cuts an uncontented figure.

Sevilla may improve and finish in the top six, but they're already 11 points off the Champions league positions; not that they took advantage of qualifying for Europe's top club competition last season, losing in the qualifying rounds.

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