La Liga season so far: Barcelona and Real Madrid look set for exciting title race

Andy Mitten reviews the Spanish top-flight at the halfway stage as the Big Two battle for top honours

Espanyol fans have had little to celebrate this season. After losing their manager and best goalscorer in the summer, the club are now bottom of La Liga with only two wins from 19 games and face a first relegation since 1993.

Espanyol's world did look a little brighter two minutes before the end of their home derby against Barcelona on Saturday night, though, when China's best player, Wu Lei, equalised in a 2-2 draw with a low, hard finish inside the far post.

Lei, a hero of their run towards Europa League football last season, has been as disappointing as many of his teammates this term, but he came off the bench to finish – and delight the large number of Chinese journalists and fans present.

“Yes we can!” sang the constantly vocal Espanyol fans as their life under new manager (and former Barca player Aberlardo) got off to a winning start. Those same fans have also been reported to the Spanish federation for more offensive chants towards Gerard Pique.

Too often Barça steamroll their rivals, but Espanyol fought back after originally taking the lead. They’ve done well in the Europa League where they’ll face Wolves next month, but they need to start winning league games.

For Barcelona, it was a disappointing result, but they are still winter champions – a symbolic halfway point in the league in Spain – for the 12th time in the last 14 years. Real Madrid in 2007 and Atletico Madrid in 2014 were the exceptions – and they won the league on each occasion.

Barca, however, only owe their lead over Real Madrid to goal difference. While both are winning, neither of Spain’s top two are playing spectacularly well and confidence that great moments lie ahead in 2020 is limited. Yet, paradoxically, the weaknesses of both teams could make it an exciting title race.

December’s goalless draw between the pair was a rare clasico in that it underwhelmed, but Barca still have Lionel Messi, the league’s leading goalscorer at the halfway point, while his most effective foil Luis Suarez is also in form and has played a part in Barca’s last 10 goals.

Barca have scored an astonishing 49 goals in 19 league games, though Antoine Griezmann has not impressed thus far, despite scoring in three of the last five games.

Barca's problem is their away form, where they have won only four of their 10 matches. They lost at Athletic Bilbao on the opening day and at Granada and Levante, too. They're still to play at Sevilla and Madrid.

The Catalans have won eight and drawn one of their nine home games but fans remain divided on manager Ernesto Valverde, even if he has won the league twice. That would – and still should – constitute success, but Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique raised the bar so high with Champions League titles and stunning football that fans are outraged when Barca crash out of Europe to heavy away defeats.

Frenkie de Jong has settled well at Camp Nou but there are issues in midfield. Brazilian Arthur is picking up too many injuries while Sergio Busquets, for so long an effective stalwart, is a declining force.

Arturo Vidal, 32, has started only four league games because while he’s popular with fans and players, he struggles to fit into the system. There is interest in the Chilean from Italy but Barca have no intention of selling. Carlos Alena, 22, has gone on loan to Real Betis.

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Best pictures from Real Madrid's win at Getafe

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A poor Madrid beat a tactically smart Getafe at the weekend to keep the pressure on the Catalans. In the absence of Sergio Ramos, they needed Thibaut Courtois and Rafael Varane to step up.

Madrid will beat Barca to sign highly-rated 17-year-old Brazilian Reiner from Flamengo. He has been compared to Kaka, though he won’t arrive in time to fly to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Spanish Super Cup this week alongside Barça, Valencia and Atletico. The Catalans caught their flight out there after the annual opening training session attended by thousands of children.

Elsewhere in La Liga, Atletico are third but already five points behind the biggest two – a Messi goal did for Diego Simeone's side at home. Sevilla, who surprisingly boast the best away record after years of being indomitable at home and poor away, are also on 35 points with Atletico. Real Sociedad, who are playing some entertaining football, are fifth on 31 points, the same as Valencia.

Real Sociedad lost at Villarreal who were inspired again by Santi Cazorla for a third successive win. They are up to ninth after a bad start to the season. Their next game? Espanyol.

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