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Barca on the brink of a golden era

The feeling in Catalonia is that Barcelona are on the cusp of a new golden era under Pep Guardiola. Just six months ago they looked washed up and finished under Frank Rijkaard, now they look like the best team in Europe.

The winter break is a time for the Primera Liga to take stock: for players to have a few easier days training, supporters to speculate about January signings and presidents to ponder how much longer to give the manager.With that in mind, this is my assessment of the top teams over the first half of the season. The feeling in Catalonia is that Barcelona are on the cusp of a new golden era under Pep Guardiola. Just six months ago they looked washed up and finished under Frank Rijkaard, now they look like the best team in Europe.

Lionel Messi can lay claim to being the best player on the planet, Thierry Henry is showing a form last seen when he was at Arsenal while Xavi and Iniesta would walk into any midfield in the world. The Blaugrana have not yet won any trophies under their stylish and cerebral coach, but it would take an implosion for them to lose the league title. They hold a 10 point gap over Sevilla, who have enjoyed a solid run in the league, but Uefa cup elimination last week was hard to take.

After losing two hugely influential players in Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita, the new coach Manolo Jimenez has done well to craft a balanced side with a small squad. The front pair of Luis Fabiano and Freddie Kanoute trouble the best, but Champions League qualification would still be seen as a sound achievement. It's not often you see Atletico Madrid above their more esteemed neighbours from the north of the capital, but only Barca have had a better run in the past two months.

Atleti are bottom of the mini-league of the top six clubs, if you take only results against each other, but the Mexican coach Javier Aguirre has reinforced their dressing room belief. Still in the Champions League and backed by ever passionate (if sometimes problematic) fans, the form of the South American strikers Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan has long since helped them get over the loss of long-time cult hero Fernando Torres.

Fans of Valencia are pinching themselves that they are doing so well. A financial meltdown at after years of profligacy at Los Ches meant they were expecting to lose all their best players at the start of this season. Instead, they won six of their first seven league games and headed the table. Form has dipped, but rather than address the problem of adding more creativity in midfield, fans will be hoping that their club re-negotiates its debt and somehow keeps hold of David Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva next month.

Champions Real Madrid have endured a torrid season, but it would be foolish to write them off from a recovery. The new coach Juande Ramos has provided fresh impetus but he has inherited a weak squad because of the inability to land players like Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer. Bernd Schuster may have gone, but those responsible for mistakes are still there. Players returning from injury and new signings should help, and it will be a shock if Real do not finish in the top four.

Any chance of Villarreal going one better than last season and claiming the title have disappeared after winning just one of their last six games. Manuel Pellegrini has excellent players at his disposal, but the demands of the Champions League has meant that domestic form has suffered. A top four finish will be a success for the Yellow Submarines. Deportivo La Coruna are the surprise form team of this season. The coach Miguel Lotina is doing well and the capture of goalkeeper Aranzubia from Atletico has steadied the defence. Lotina is in demand and unlikely to hang around if he does not get the financial support to match his ambitions.


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