As the Primera División season goes into its winter break, FC Barcelona can reflect on a job well done. The leaders' stylish play has set the league alight, but just as impressive have been a determined CA Osasuna, who have surprised with their rise to second place. Real Madrid CF, in contrast, are in the doldrums.
Frank Rijkaard's league leaders are on course to defend the title they won last season, and they remain the most feared team in the UEFA Champions League as they prepare for their first knockout phase fixture against Chelsea FC in 2006. The 2005/06 campaign has already been very special for the Catalan side, who broke a 50-year club record by winning over 11 games in succession in the league. That record is now at 13 wins and counting. Meanwhile Ronaldinho was a shoe-in choice for the European Footballer of the Year and FIFA World Player of the Year awards.
It is a testament to Osasuna that they have managed to stay within striking distance of the champions. Javier Aguirre's side may not be the most glamorous team in the Primera División, but their physical style has left many more famous names floundering in their wake. They ended the year on a high by coming from behind to defeat Club Atlético de Madrid 2-1 in the final Primera División match of the year on Thursday.
After a disappointing 2004/05 campaign, Valencia CF are back in contention for honours and are third in the table. However, with defender Roberto Ayala recovering from knee surgery and Marco Di Vaio headed for AS Monaco FC on loan, coach Quique Sánchez Flores could have a tougher time in 2006. Successful UEFA Champions League debutants Villarreal CF are in fourth, one point ahead of Madrid who have had a trying start to the season. They have reached the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, but poor domestic form has left them eleven points behind Barcelona and cost Brazilian coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo his job.
A host of summer signings - Julio Baptista, Pablo García, Robinho, Sergio Ramos and Carlos Diogo - has failed to put the spring in Madrid's step and while the appointment of Juan Ramón López Caro as coach cheered the crowd, it was less popular with the club's Brazilian stars, who were used to Luxemburgo. The spring campaign could yet see Madrid turn things around, and they can take comfort from not being the most disappointing side in the Primera División so far - that honour goes to Real Betis Balompié.
After a bright start, the Seville-based side hit the wall in recent months, missing out on a place in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League and plummeting to third-from-bottom in the table. "The situation is bringing us down, but I am sure we will resolve it soon," said coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer. For some, it seems, the winter break could not come soon enough.
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