Who's up and who's down in La Liga this season? Here are some thoughts:
Athletic: After four years under the steady hand of Joaquin Caparros, it was quite a surprise that Europa League entrants Athletic decided to replace the departed Sevillan with a man affectionately known as "El Loco" in his native Argentina. Pep Guardiola describes Marcelo Bielsa as his idol, and it is easy to see why the coach of Barcelona would be impressed with Bielsa's stylings. Athletic, always a solid side, was introduced to the notion of midfield by Bielsa and taught how to pass its way around teams rather than bypassing half of its own while seeking the head of Fernando Llorente or Gaizka Toquero for a knockdown. This season, Athletic has delighted its fans and many more in Spain with its slick passing and attack-minded play, and it is no coincidence that the last Spain squad contained four San Mames players, with several more in the under-21s. Athletic is an incredibly young side that will improve with age. Problem is that the likes of Real Madrid have begun to finger their checkbooks, some with even greater urgency after Athletic destroyed Manchester United over two legs in the Europa League, eventually winning 5-3 on aggregate, a score that flattered Sir Alex Ferguson's side. Champions League qualification should keep Athletic's ranks intact for the time being -- good news for fans, neutrals and the national setup.
Atletico: Not counting Barcelona -- and most clubs do not -- Atletico was unbeaten under Diego Simeone until its two minutes of defensive madness against Mallorca, a staggering achievement when the mess Gregorio Manzano left behind is taken into account. Atletico's target for the season was, is and always shall be Champions League qualification, in the absence of other realistic goals, but anybody who believed it was possible at the end of December would have been called delusional, with Atletico 10 points off the pace. Now, Simeone's side is four points off Malaga in fourth, completed a 6-1 rout of Besiktas in the Europa League and faces Zaragoza, Getafe and Levante before its biannual beating at the hands of Real. Such is the newfound optimism in the south of the capital that there are even cautious whispers that Simeone could be the man to lift "the curse."
Osasuna: Much like the five-famous-Belgians name game, few outside Pamplona could fill in half an Osasuna team sheet. Neither does the name register outside Spanish borders quite the same way other modest Liga clubs can -- perhaps because Osasuna is simply the Basque term for good health. Nonetheless, if things continue as they are for 12 more games, Osasuna's continental profile will receive a boost. Currently in fifth, Jose Luis Mendilibar's side has bucked trend this season by picking up points on the road. Standard Osasuna procedure is to remain in the division courtesy of its results in the Reyno de Navarra, an often-frozen ground in an industrial estate with an extremely partisan crowd. It has still managed only one win in its travels, but eight ties represent the difference between fifth and 14th in a compact table. Osasuna narrowly missed the chance to go fourth overnight Saturday, somehow conspiring to let the wretched Zaragoza nick a rare point at La Romareda.
Villarreal: It's all too easy to forget -- unless you happen to live in Vila-real -- that Villarreal was in the Champions League this season. True, even Villarreal would probably prefer to forget a campaign that reaped six losses and two goals, but the Yellow Submarine's nosedive has gone much deeper than that. A small club from a smaller town -- the population of Vila-real is twice the capacity of El Madrigal -- its achievements in reaching the Champions League regularly and narrowly missing out on the final in 2006 make the club's flirtation with Segunda even more remarkable. Languishing in 17th, there are mitigating circumstances for Villarreal's plight: Any side losing its main forward, in this case Giuseppe Rossi, for most of the season is going to struggle. Nilmar, his erstwhile partner, has gone into a good old-fashioned Brazilian sulk and is nowhere near his best in terms of form or application. The club's heartbeat, Santi Cazorla, was sold to Malaga to balance the books, and World Cup-winning left back Joan Capdevila left for Benfica, where he curiously disappeared from view. Add to this some truly woeful summer transfer business -- take a bow, Jonathan de Guzman -- and it was always going to be a tall order to keep the side in the upper reaches of the table. New coach Jose Molina lasted just 11 games, and Miguel Angel Lotina has been handed the task of keeping Villarreal in the division.
Zaragoza: It's been a long time since Zaragoza had the financial clout or the allure to pick up players like David Villa, Pablo Aimar and the Milito brothers. King's Cup winners in 2001 and 2004, Zaragoza is headed for the Segunda trap door, and this time, unlike its brief foray in 2008-09, it seems unlikely it will be back in a hurry. In debt to the tune of around 130 million euros -- the largest single debt in Spanish soccer -- Zaragoza made few friends by bypassing a transfer embargo through a third-party investment fund based on the tax haven of Jersey to acquire keeper Roberto from Benfica. No amount of chicanery, financial or otherwise, is going to save Zaragoza now, and it will have plenty of time in the Liga wilderness to reflect on whether paying Jermaine Pennant somewhere around 80,000 euros a week was good business.
Betis: League leader for a few weeks at the beginning of the season, Betis went on a subsequent run of 10 games without a win. Now 16th with a few weeks of the season remaining, Betis and its roller-coaster season took a new twist in 2012, with points accrued in some unlikely places, notably San Mames; Real Madrid recently rattled like it hasn't been rattled in some time in Seville. It's all a far cry from the heady days of Champions League action, but Betis is happy just to be back in the big time after suffering, as so many coastal clubs in Spain do, from a national pastime for men in suits: large-scale fraud. Having nearly gone under in real terms, a return to Segunda would probably not be too much of a blow to the Betis faithful, but it would be a shame after a season that promised much more. Much like Villarreal, Betis will probably survive purely because Sporting, Zaragoza and Racing are in such rancid form.