Atletico Madrid's Copa Del Rey win over Real on Friday wasn't just about short-term glory, says Tim Stannard, but a chance to build for better things ahead...
Atletico Madrid haven't beaten their bitter rivals in almost 14 years. But Tim Stannard says that if anyone can help the Rojiblancos end that curse, it's Diego Simeone...
Athletic Bilbao (14th)
It's hard to think of a comparable situation when things have gone so wrong for a club so blooming quickly. A year ago, Marcelo Bielsa was the inspired leader of a passionate, hard-working, united group of footballers with Sir Alex Ferguson gasping at their feet in admiration. Athletic are a shambles now. Bielsa is a tracksuit-clad, touchline-pacing, mumbling, grumbling loon responsible for the second leakiest defence in the division, the exiling of the handy Fernando Llorente, and an Iker Muniain who is utterly out of form. Oh, the Basque side are out of Europe already and just four points from the relegation zone. A desperate shame.
Atlético Madrid (2nd)
Diego Simeone has truly banished the ghosts of Atlético Madrid past - the inconsistency, the tendency for self-destruction, the fear of failure. Every thing that made the team such fun to follow over the years. Every time that the Rojiblancos have dropped points in la Primera this season, the side has bounced back immediately with a win. The terrifying Argentinean in charge of the Vicente Calderón won't have it any other way. Atlético are currently sandwiched between the more newsworthy Barcelona above and Real Madrid below and being largely overlooked in Spain, but that probably suits a side whose target this season has shifted from third spot to a daring raid on second, in what would be an enormous middle finger to their neighbours.
Rating: 9/10 (point docked for typically hopeless display at the Santiago Bernabeu)
Ballon d'Or 2013 for Tito Vilanova anyone? The Barça coach has lead the Catalan club to a near-flawless start to the season in his first campaign as a manager after a spell as Pep Guardiola's number two. Although in the process, he has made Barcelona somewhat dull, in that the side's results are very much a foregone conclusion, something that certainly can't be said for Real Madrid this season. On a personal level, Vilanova has had to achieve this whilst battling illness whilst professionally it hasn't gone all smoothly for Barcelona with early season issues at the back due to injuries and moans and groans from Cesc Fabregas. Nevertheless, Barcelona's league form has been almost impeccable with the only dropped points from 19 matches being a 2-2 draw against Real Madrid.
Last year, Betis swung like the Highlander films between being brilliant and abysmal. But coach Pepe Mel has been able to restore some consistency to a more experienced team this season that has performed admirably with a rookie goalkeeper, an aging defence, a midfield stuffed with footballers wanted by everyone else and a journeyman striker who hasn't stopped scoring. A renewed charge from Valencia and some enforced sales in the winter transfer window, may prevent Betis from keeping the Champions League spot the side currently holds, but a European place is a very doable for a team who should be welcomed back into the continental fold with open arms, along with their heavy-drinking fans.
Celta Vigo (15th)
The returning Galicians are a lovely side to watch on their day. The trouble is that the team is more than a little flimsy and is struggling to cope with conditions in the more ruthless, street-wise top flight. Celta have only picked up the single away win in ten matches and could well be without striker, Iago Aspas, for the rest of the season due to a transfer, so things are looking a little bleak for the Galicians in the second half of the campaign. Although Celta have not been in the relegation zone since the second round, but it's something that might change quick if the northerners don't toughen up quickly enough and grow some hairs on their chests.
A tough old return to la Primera for Destitute Deportivo with just the three victories over the first half of the campaign. The positive note though is that a third of those wins came on the debut of new manager, Domingos Paciencia, with the former Sporting Braga coach instantly tightening up a defence that was far too leaky with 40 goals conceded. Despite going into administration this week, Deportivo have borrowed and begged for a few footballers - with a little help from Jorge Mendes - so the there is a smidgeon of hope that the upcoming relegation fight might be a successful one.
Another side who have improved considerably after a change in manager with the incoming Javier Aguirre picking up points at twice the rate of the sadly-sacked Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinean had ran out of steam at a club with big financial problems and even bigger boardroom battles. However, Aguirre is a truly ferocious character who has the perfect personality - a mixture of charm and fire-breathing rage - to motivate a squad with talent hidden in the ranks and turn the frowns of excellent fans upside down to haul Espanyol into mid-table.
Getafe boss Luis García once told this correspondent that Getafe are a side who belong between eighth 11th in la Primera and the majority of the campaign has reflected this, with Getafe's footballers always doing just enough to stay in that zone. García seems to be struggling with getting the footballers to push for more and emulate sides like Levante and Rayo, who are on considerably smaller budgets with less talented players. Luis García also seems to be a coach who is as bored of managing Getafe as everyone else is watching them.
Squatting just outside the relegation zone, as Granada are now, is where the Andalusians will be perfectly happy to be at the end of the season. Granada is an outfit with a huge amount of player turnover every season due to links with the Udinese owners and this produces a group of footballers that struggle to gel and supporters who don't always identify with them. Nevertheless, Granada tend to create a lot of chances, especially down the flanks where the side is strongest. The problem is finding a striker who can put these opportunities away, something that will make the end of the season considerably more comfortable.
Another admirable few months for Levante, who are through to the next stages of the Europa League whilst maintaining their league form with the Valencia club just four from the Champions League places and 12 from survival, which is always the first aim of a side still suffering from a financial meltdown. Sergio Ballesteros is still going at the back - all be it a little portlier perhaps - whilst Obafemi Martins is reinventing himself up front. Everyone else in between just works their acrylic socks off.
Part Two will arrive just as soon as Tim gets back from Ikea.
Tim Stannard - follow him on Twitter