We're halfway through the La Liga season and while it's no suprise that Barcelona sit atop the table, it is a surprise that Real Madrid are not in second place. I am sorry though, when it comes to Spain no matter how hard you try to not just talk about Barcelona and Real Madrid, you can't help but come back to them. So while there are plenty of other stories at the halfway point of the season, you can't ignore the story that most people focus on.
So we'll start there.
The single-biggest on the field story in La Liga so far this season, whether it should be or not, is 16 points. That's Barcelona's lead over Real Madrid in the table as the Blaugrana have made their best league start ever taking 49 out of a possible 51 points. It's an advantage so shocking that we tend to forget that there's a team between them in the table, something no one is used to in Spain.
Things were supposed to be more uncertain for Barcelona this year, with Pep Guardiola departing, but instead Tito Vilanova has stepped right in and helped lead them to even higher levels. Of course, there's still a long way to go, but it's hard not to admire what Vilanova has accomplished. Incredibly, even with health issues temporarily taking him off the sidelines, Vilanova's team still hasn't faltered.
Barcelona have managed to avoid all the potential pitfalls and distractions that have tried to trip them up this season. Despite injuries to key players and defensive struggles at times, they've kept on winning and getting results, something Real Madrid haven't been able to do.
Madrid sit in third place all but out of the title race with the only real prize left to chase being the Champions League. Head coach Jose Mourinho is under siege from fans and the media and his future with the club is seriously in doubt, something that seems absurd after last season's success. Unlike their rivals, Madrid haven't dealt with the injuries and distractions. They've already lost four matches which may not sound like a lot, but if you consider the fact they haven't lost more than four games in a season since 2008/09, you see the concern.
Add in the fact they finished second in their Champions League group setting up a Round of 16 tilt with Manchester United and supporters of Los Blancos are nervous. Instead of talking about defending their league title and chasing their club's 10th European championship, the headlines are focused on why Mourinho dropped Iker Casillas against Malaga and Cristiano Ronaldo's refusal to sign a new contract. If Mourinho can't turn things around over the next five months, it could be a tumultuous summer for one of Spain's biggest clubs.
There are, of course, other teams in Spain.
Atletico Madrid sit in second place, nine points behind Barcelona. They were hammered by Barca in their first meeting but despite that it was a successful first half for Los Rojiblancos. While they'll need the league leaders to trip up in a big way to challenge for the title, staying in second ahead of Madrid is a possibility. The biggest factor that will contribute to that happening is the transfer window fate of Radamel Falcao. So far everything points to Falcao staying through the end of the season but all it takes is one massive transfer bid to change everything.
Malaga currently sit in fourth position but if they earn the Champions League spot that goes with that position, it will be taken away by UEFA over financial fair play violations. That makes the battle right behind Malaga between Real Betis and Levante potentially the most entertaining race in the league's second half. Finishing in fifth place would still mean a UCL spot (unless something changes with UEFA, and sadly that's always a possibility). The ultimate success or failure of Betis to secure fourth or fifth could come down to the continued health and production of their two leading scorers Rubén Castro and Jorge Molina, both of whom are over 30. Holding on to the talented Beñat should anyone come sniffing during the transfer window would be good too.
Valencia have been without Ever Banega and Sergio Canales for big chunks of the season and it has shown. Los Che were pegged by some to be a Champions League spot contender but that simply hasn't materialized.
Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla FC are precariously perched in 13th and 14th respectively, much farther down the table than either club would like. Bilbao simply haven't been able to recover from the transfer of Javi Martinez and the on-going war between head coach Marcelo Bielsa and striker Fernando Llorente. Those two players were the engine that drove Bilbao last season and they simply haven't been able to bounce back with one gone and the other not playing consistently.
At the bottom of the league sit Espanyol, Osasuna, Deportivo La Coruña, while Granada, Mallorca, Celta Vigo are all safe for the moment but precariously close to dropping in to the relegation zone themselves.
With the league title race virtually over (it's never really over until the end but come on) the stories to follow in Spain during the season's second half will be European spots and the relegation battle...but isn't that how it always is?
Enjoy the break it'll be over before you know it.