With just 10 points separating 20th from 11th in La Liga, the second half of the season for the bottom half of the table will not be a charge for glory but a pitched battle for survival. Bucking the trend of a majority of years in Spain's top flight are the three promoted teams, none of which is currently in the bottom three. Only three sides have been ever-present in Primera Division -- Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao -- and many successful clubs of stature and success (Celta and Betis among them) have languished for years in the dark recesses of Segunda, or what Liga sponsors euphemistically like to call the "silver division."
There are several prime candidates for the drop this season, but January provides a chance to bolster demoralized or decimated squads. Here's a closer look.
The Alicante club couldn't have asked for a finer start to the season, ambushing Barcelona to inflict the Catalans' sole loss so far. The signing of David Trezeguet could have been a disaster, but turned into a coup -- the Frenchman and strike partner Nelson Valdez have bagged 14 of Hercules' 23 goals this season. However, there is a growing sense that while the modest club has found its first season in Primera since 1997 a relatively smooth ride, a spectacular crash is just around the corner.
Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesDavid Trezeguet has been a bright spot for Hercules this season, but there's a growing sense that a crash is just around the corner.
Trouble signs are there. Royston Drenthe, on loan from Real Madrid, has apparently seen just one pay check in six months and is on strike. Hercules' major bankroller, Enrique Ortiz, is an archetypal Spanish club shareholder. He has been arrested and charged with corruption in the award of garbage collection contracts and taped as part of a massive investigation bribing players, and entire teams, on at least four occasions during the side's promotion push last year.
If Hercules is destitute, a drop into Segunda this year could send it further into the abyss, as happened last time it was relegated. Tenerife is a more recent example; banished from the top flight last season in financial disarray, it's now five points adrift of safety at the foot of Segunda.
As the Canary Islanders might be about to find out, the only difference between a car crash and Segunda B is that people can't resist stopping to watch the former.
Zaragoza's 2-1 victory over Real Sociedad on Monday was just its second in 17 matches. Nobrega Braulio's last-gasp strike cued scenes of jubilation inside La Romareda worthy of a cup final, and Zaragoza must treat every game from now until May as just that. In Javier Aguirre, Zaragoza has a seasoned and astute tactician and a coach with the stomach for a relegation scrap. "If anybody can't handle the pressure, the door is over there," the Mexican recently warned his players during a press conference.
Zaragoza's plight is exacerbated by Ikechukwu Uche's second serious injury (knee) since his arrival at the club, leaving Florent Sinama-Pongolle to lead the line, often as a lone striker. The Aragonese club was relegated in 2008 and bounced straight back up the following season. It would be preferable for everybody connected with Zaragoza if it doesn't have to try that trick again.
The pre-eminent escape artists, like a 21st century sporting Houdini, Racing has survived every season since returning to the top flight in 2002, albeit with three 16th and two 17th placed finishes. And for every escape, there has been a key player behind it: Sergio Canales embellished his reputation there last season before signing on to adorn Real's creaking bench, while Pedro Munitis has been pulling the strings for seasons. Nikola Zigic's 13 goals in 19 games on loan in 2009 went some way to keeping Racing in Primera for another year.
The problem this term is that Racing cannot buy a goal. Atletico president Enrique Cerezo, after watching Monday's stalemate at the Calderon, described losing two points to Racing as a "fiasco."
On-loan Werder Bremen striker Markus Rosenberg has netted five times. Without the Sweden forward, Racing would be deeper in the mire, with the rest of the team chipping in with a paltry eight tallies.
Racing needs to buy, beg, borrow or steal a forward to lend Rosenburg a hand, or it may find Segunda's shackles tightening on its wrist.
Unlike most of its relegation rivals, Malaga has a distinct advantage -- the ownership of Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, a member of the Qatar royal family.
Malaga avoided relegation last season by the width of a leaf from Al Thani's check book, and it may do the same this year with its weight. With January just days old and the transfer window slowly cracking open, Al Thani has splashed out for the signings of Sergio Asenjo and Ignacio Camacho from Atlético, Argentina international Martin Demichelis, Julio "The Beast" Baptista from Roma and former Juventus and Sevilla midfielder Enzo Maresca. None of the new signings took to the field in Malaga's Sunday match away at Sporting, but manager Manuel Pellegrini oversaw Malaga's first win since a 4-1 triumph over Racing on December 5. It suggests that the mere presence of Malaga's five shiny new toys has had a galvanizing effect on the other players -- whether through camaraderie or fear of losing a place in the side will not concern either Pellegrini or Al Thani.
Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty ImagesSevilla's Frederic Kanoute knows all about being on a team that's supposed to be "too good to go down."
They couldn't, could they? It seems incredible to talk of a side of Sevilla's status as possible Segunda fodder, but an entirely unconvincing 1-0 home win over an Osasuna side without a victory on the road this season did not erase the run of five straight defeats beforehand. Frederic Kanoute is no stranger to the "too good to go down" tag -- the Mali striker was part of a West Ham team containing David James, Joe Cole, Paolo di Canio, Les Ferdinand and Jermain Defoe that did just that in 2003.
The return of Jesus Navas from a 22-match injury layoff could not have been timelier. The Spain winger dropped the ball on Kanoute's head for the only goal and, much like Trezeguet and Valdez at Hercules, a lot rests on the continued fitness of both players.
Sevilla has a pretty grim second half to the season, with a trip to Real Sociedad this weekend followed by the visit of Espanyol. Manager Gregorio Manzano will settle for little less than eight points from back-to-back games against Levante, Deportivo, Malaga and Racing immediately afterward. Away trips to Atletico, Athletic and Valencia, and the visit of Barcelona to the Sanchez Pizjuan, will follow. It could get ugly for Sevilla.