Over in La Liga, it's still very tight at the top of the table, but a gap is starting to open up between the first 3 teams and the rest of the top 10, who are very closely packed together. I think the battle for a European place will be just as fierce as the title race this time around.
While Barcelona, Sevilla and Real Madrid try to keep pace with each other at the top, Real Zaragoza, Celta Vigo, Atletico Madrid, Getafe, Valencia, Villarreal, Deportivo La Coruna and even newly promoted Recreativo de Huelva all have a good shot at the European places if they don't screw themselves over. Down in the relegation zone, things are already looking bleak for several 'contenders'.
the title contenders
Even with an injury crisis up front, Barcelona aren't going to give anything away. My primary worry is that the team will run out of steam as the season goes on, due to FIFA's insistence on making the Champions League winners play a whole lot more games than everyone else, thus stunting their actual chances (no wonder no defending champions have won again after the Champions League was re-organised). Everybody else will have a Christmas break while Barca has to go off to Japan to play the World Club Championship.
Personally I want Rijkaard to field non-starters only, unless we reach the final. Nice as it would be to win the only international title Barca don't have yet, it's not worth risking other, bigger, titles for. On the other hand at least Eto'o, Messi and hopefully Saviola will be fresh for the last few months of the season.
Sevilla's title challenge seems to be real, as they're only 1 point off the top after 12 games and have dealt well with the loss of Jesus Navas. They have the best home record of any team in the league and some great results away as well. With Barcelona struggling to stay in the Champions League and the squad thinned up front through injury, this could well be Sevilla's year.
On the other hand, Real Madrid are well and truly back - if not to playing good football, which they are some distance short of achieving, but to getting vital results week in, week out. The next few matches are important to them given that their only playmaker Guti is suspended and injured. It will be interesting to see how Capello copes - I suspect he knows that the approach he took at Valencia isn't the actual solution.
Zaragoza have some wonderful players, and enough overall quality to take them into the Champions League. Their problem is the leaky defence, not to mention a poor disciplinary record. They also need to work on consistency, which I suspect is as much a mental problem as anything else. Hopefully they won't crash and burn like last season and will make a European competition, be it the UEFA Cup or the Champions League.
I'm not sure what's going on with Celta. They have great away results due to their slick counter-attacking system, but home form has been rather more wobbly. There's a lot of quality in the squad, and the team itself is well organised. Their coach is a smart guy. Probably not quite good enough for a Champions League place, but they certainly have enough to qualify for the UEFA Cup yet again.
Atletico Madrid had a great squad at the beginning of the season, and played very well indeed. They looked good for Champions League place. But as we all know, they're the 'cursed' team of La Liga. Something always happens. They now have a rash of injury problems, Fernando Torres has been a little hit-and-miss, and you can't blame an inability to put the ball in the back of the net on the referee. (Seriously, Atletico supporters seem to insist on a referee conspiracy against them more than any other club's supporters, almost as much as Barca fans did during the bad old barren years. I'd say the problem is deeper than that.)
Getafe are an odd team, in a lot of ways. Their manager Schuster loves running his mouth off, but the former Barca and Real Madrid player also seems to have acquired a knack for turning unknown players from the bench of a small club or one in the second division into gems. That's the key to Getafe's incredible success given their modest means. They're well-organised, defend very well and have players who can capitalise on the counter. Having lost many of their best players (most of whom have Schuster to thank for their career) this season, they simply keep grinding out results. Not quite good enough for the Champions League, but the UEFA Cup certainly looks possible.
Valencia are watching their title chances disappear over the horizon right now. At the beginning of the season, they looked like the ones who were going to give Barca and Real a run for their money, alongside Sevilla. Sure, injuries were mounting, but the squad was so big that they were dealing with it fine.
But as the ridiculously long injury list got longer, they began increasingly relying on their two strikers, both of whom had so far avoided the dreaded treatment room, to get them out of jail. The problem with that is once those strikers get injured, then you're really in trouble - and that's what happened against Real Madrid. I know the Real defence isn't that great, but you still have to have an actual striker if you want to score against them.
As the squad is worn down to its bare bones, it's now clear that the club's sporting director and former player Carboni has bought very badly. Not only did he clash repeatedly with coach Flores over who to sign, the players he did sign have not exactly been a success. Morientes has done well, sure, but any idiot knows that El Moro is a great striker going by his record in Spain. England just didn't suit him.
Look at Carboni's other signings. Del Horno hasn't played a single minute, spending all his time in the treatment room and operating table. He's out til January. Tavano wants to go back to Italy because Flores would rather play a winger up front than use an actual forward like him. Joaquin has carried over his poor form from old club Real Betis and is increasingly being squeezed out of the starting eleven. Given how much he cost (almost as much as Samuel Eto'o's transfer to Barca), this is a real disaster for the club.
I really don't know what's going to happen to Valencia. They might rally and get themselves up into the Champions League places again once the injuries blow over, but a valid title challenge looks a little unlikely, given the unstable internal situation within the club.
Villarreal have a host of problems of their own. The team and the fans aren't getting along so well, for one. Forlan was booed for playing like his Manchester United self at the beginning of the season, which Riquelme, amongst others, took offence to. Now Riquelme himself is unhappy with the way the team have been getting booed as a whole.
I think the behaviour of the fans is ridiculous. Villarreal aren't playing all that badly. If they're having trouble, maybe that's because they have their own injury crisis to deal with. The loss of Gonzalo Rodriguez has left a hole in a formerly watertight defence - and replacements Fuentes and, er, Pascal Cygan haven't really been impressive. Up front Robert Pires, who was supposed to replace Sorin, is out with a long-term injury. Other new signings Cani and Nihat have only impressed in flashes, and now the latter is injured too.
Most importantly, Riquelme is going through a bad patch, and Riquelme's mood affects the whole team. They're not in a good place mentally right now. Without Roman, they let their heads drop far too quickly against Barca - which you're not supposed to do at the Camp Nou, because then the hosts will hammer you. At times like these they really need the support of their home fans to get their heads right again. A couple of victories should set them on their way, and they might very well snatch a European place, but that all depends on the form of one man. Let's hope Roman is up to it.
Depor are yet another oddity. They have great form at home and were well on course to a European spot until they seemed to hit a stumbling block a few weeks ago. The recent defeat inflicted on them by the previously dire Osasuna was an alarming sign of decline. Even away, 4-1 should not have been the scoreline if Depor had played anywhere near their normal standards.
I really don't know what's going to happen there - they have so many new players and such a young squad that it's hard to tell if they're going to be able to find some consistent form and keep it through the season. Maybe a UEFA Cup spot is possible, but anything higher looks unlikely - perhaps next season, after the young squad has had more time to grow together?
This season's surprise fresh-promotee success Recreativo may also have a shot at Europe, but it remains to be seen how ambitious they are, and if the squad is big enough to go further than just avoid dropping down, which looks like a easy task for them at this point.
Poor Real Sociedad have been rooted to the bottom of the table for quite an impressive length of time. They still haven't won a game and only have 5 points, but seem to be improving under new coach Lotina. Against Atletico they produced a solid defensive performance which saw them finally move off the bottom of the table, albeit only on goal difference. I think their season may very well pick up from here. They'll be in danger all through it because of their exceptionally poor start, but things are getting better. Sociedad only have to look at the way Mallorca play - grinding out results by playing as many men behind the ball as possible - and how well that has served the island club to see how their present system might produce similar results. It won't be pretty, but I have a feeling that barring an implosion, they will manage it.
New promotees Gimnastic have not found life in the top flight pleasant at all. The third Catalan team in the first division has struggled to adapt and now lie bottom of the table with a goal difference of -15. Pretty appalling, but then they have played a lot of top sides and were unlucky to lose out a few times. Given that they've just fired their manager (impressive trigger-happy tendencies from La Liga boards, as usual), I don't foresee a real upturn in their fortunes. Definite relegation candidates at this point.
Athletic Bilbao rounds off the bottom 3. Now, personally, I would hate for Athletic to be relegated. They have maintained the proud record of having never been relegated while sticking to their unique Basque-only selection policy, which hasn't been easy in the last couple of seasons. Losing key players such as Ezquerro and Del Horno has not helped, as recruitment is a lot more difficult for them than for your average club. The last time I saw them play, I thought that they had a few quality players, particularly up front - Llorente is a pretty good youngster, and Yeste can be brilliant sometimes.
Perhaps they lack a bit of quality at the back, but that's certainly not what their coach was saying - about 24 hours before he got the sack. I hate the way La Liga treats managers, by the way. I really don't think he deserved to go, as there wasn't much he could really do, at least from where I'm standing. Much as I hate to say it, it looks like Athletic will struggle again this year, even if they do manage to bring in some reinforcements in January. Fingers crossed they won't be going down.
The case of Real Betis is a strange one. They shouldn't be in relegation trouble at all, given the quality of their squad and the displays they can put in. Losing Oliveira was a big blow, but Joaquin hadn't been playing well for ages anyway, so selling him should hardly be the cause of their misery. Reportedly it's the club owner's interference in selection and transfers that has bought all this about, which is predictable enough in a league where semi-crazy dictator-style men with no understanding of football get all the power. City 'rivals' Sevilla's great fortunes must also be getting them down.
I'd be surprised if they were relegated, because of the amount of talent and potential in the team. Betis won the Copa del Rey in 04-05, least we forget, and finished 4th in the league. The season after that they were relegation battlers, but still managed to beat Chelsea in the group stages of the Champions League along the way. It would be a shame if they couldn't arrest their downwards spiral.
the coming winter
The fixtures before Christmas are crucial to the shape of the top of the table. Real Madrid and Sevilla will play each other, while other top clashes include Valencia v Depor, Valencia v Zaragoza, and Celta v Villarreal. It is very important to Barca that they pick up as many points as possible during this period, since it gives them a chance to build up a cushion before the clash with Atletico Madrid, which they will probably lose. The only team to beat Barca at home in all competitions last season comes to the Camp Nou on the 20th of December. Barca must ensure that they can afford to drop a few points by then.
(I'm writing a less in-depth version of this for both Serie A and the Premiership as well.)