Barcelona are on course for another title after finishing the first half of the season as “virtual champions”

No sooner had Barcelona lost their first-ever competition under Pep Guardiola than they won a seventh title. No sooner had the coach sealed up a virtual contract renewal than he wrapped up a virtual title. Top of the table at the halfway stage of the season, Barca are Spain’s campeon de invierno (winter champions). And while Guardiola said it was “merely anecdotal”, most others insisted it was rather more significant.

Despite winning 1-0 at Sevilla in the second leg of their last-16 Spanish Cup tie, the holders couldn’t save the day and Barca were out. Having won six out of six competitions since Guardiola took over, they had finally been knocked out of one. However, four days later, they took their revenge by scoring four times when Sevilla came to the Camp Nou in the league.

With the winter title in the bag, the lingering fear that gripped cules was dispelled a week later as the Catalan media delightedly announced that Guardiola had extended his contract. His current deal, which expires at the end of the season, was extended for another term.
Only, he hadn’t and it wasn’t. Not exactly.

At the following morning’s training session, the Barcelona squad gave Guardiola a standing ovation before he responded: “Enough applause, get running! I haven’t signed anything.”

As he spoke – about “pressure”, “short contracts” and “focus” – it became clear that the announcement was made under duress, designed primarily to take the pressure off. The appeals for Guardiola to stay, the debates surrounding an uncertain future, the panic that the club would collapse without him, revealed just how important he’d become.

The cup exit had played a part: with seven days between matches, Guardiola knew press speculation would increase, risking derailing the team. So he moved to stop it.

He announced his intention to continue for another season but that nothing had actually been signed – as any new deal would have to be ratified by the new president when elections are held in the summer. All he’d really done was postpone the issue. But three days later, Barcelona beat Real Valladolid 3-0 in the final game of the first half of the season, and so won a virtual title to celebrate a virtual renewal. Yet both were significant.

Guardiola’s promise had an immediate impact on the atmosphere, and the winter championship is not just an empty platitude. It means something in Spain as the season is split into two identical halves, played against the same teams in the same order. Everyone has played everyone else, so positions are not merely a quirk of the fixture list. They mean something. And for some, that’s a major worry.

Relegation battle
At the halfway stage, a relegation battle looms for Valladolid (17th), Malaga (16th) and Espanyol (14th). Almeria, in 15th, have improved since Juanma Lillo took over as coach and should climb. Below them, Spain’s bottom three are the three that came up.

It is nine seasons since all three promoted clubs survived, but one normally does and Spain hasn’t seen all three get relegated immediately for 12 years (and even that was when five went down as the 22-team La Liga was reduced to its current format).

With the smallest budget, a limited squad and boardroom civil war raging, it was always likely Xerez would end their debut top-flight season by going straight back down and, with just eight goals in 19 games – they are on course for an unwanted La Liga record.

Tenerife have played better football than their position suggests – only four teams have had more shots – but they have been weak and wasteful. Away from home, with every game meaning a three-hour flight, they have yet to collect a single win.

As for Zaragoza, you’d think they would be too good to go down – only that’s exactly what everyone said two seasons ago when they did go down. Sacking coach Marcelino hasn’t helped and his successor, Jose Aurelio Gay, has picked up just two points from five games. A few more defeats and Zaragoza will be on their third coach. When they last went down, they had four, so there’s a lesson there somewhere if they wish to heed it.

At the other end of the table, there have been surprisingly successful starts to the season for two teams with contrasting styles: Athletic Bilbao in eighth and Getafe in seventh. However, the season’s real revelation are Mallorca. Hit by financial crisis, failed buyouts and public mud-slinging after selling their best players, most expected them to be fighting relegation. Instead, thanks largely to the psychological work of coach Gregorio Manzano, they have won nine out of nine at home and hold an incredible Champions League place, sitting in fourth.

Just ahead of them are Valencia, who have held onto their best players, pushed their economic crisis to the backs of their minds and claimed a position more in keeping with a squad led by second top scorer David Villa.

In sixth place are Sevilla, whose failure to break down defensive teams at home has been their unravelling. When they beat Real Madrid, many thought Sevilla would challenge for the title, but draws against Espanyol, Malaga and Valladolid, and defeats against Racing Santander and Getafe, have seen them pick up just 18 of 30 points at home and left coach Manolo Jimenez under real pressure.

Two sides that ought to be challenging for a Champions League place, haven’t – at least not yet.

Villarreal are recovering from a poor start, while Atletico Madrid lurch from crisis to crisis, with their second coach of the season, Quique Flores, already under pressure.

Finishing top
While much can change, the state of play at the end of the front 19, going into the second half of the season, does matter. Especially at the top. In 12 of the last 15 years, the winter champions have ended up league champions. Finishing the first half of the season top of the table is not meaningless – and finishing the first half of the season top of the table the way Barcelona did certainly is not.

Guardiola’s side sit five points clear of Real Madrid and, with 15 wins and four draws in their first 19 games, they are unbeaten – only the fifth side in history to achieve that feat. Athletic Bilbao did it in 1931-32, Espanyol in 1932-33 and Real Madrid in 1966-67, but those were only 10-team leagues. Since then, only Real Madrid have done it (in 1966-67, 1988-89, and 1996-97), while Real Sociedad finished the first half of 2002-03 unbeaten – only to lose the league to Real Madrid on the final day of the season.

The talk had been of a Barcelona side that sparkled less and some even dared to predict the end of an era. But even though they have picked up a point fewer than at this stage than last season, and scored 10 goals less, there’s a seriousness that brokers few arguments: Barca have conceded fewer goals and maintained possession brilliantly, completing almost 2,000 passes more than Madrid.

Above all, though, there is one hugely telling statistic: not only have Barcelona gone through half of the season unbeaten, they have not been behind for a single minute.
It is a measure of Barca’s excellence that Madrid, on 44, have enough points to have been top in eight of the last 12 campaigns. Madrid may have improved – scoring three more and conceded 13 fewer than last term – but catching Barcelona will be hard.