What a difference a week makes

As Spanish football heads into a two week international break, there is a familiar name at the top of the table. After three games played, Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona are the only side to have picked up maximum points so far – although Sunday’s 1-0 triumph over Valencia was far removed  from last season’s 5-1 thumping they handed out to Unai Emery’s team. Significantly however, Barca still hold a five point lead over stuttering champions Real Madrid, who did at least manage a win this weekend after a less than convincing start.

It is just below the Catalans that attention falls this weekend, however, as Manuel Pellegrini’s Malaga continue their impressive early season form. The Andaluz side rounded off a memorable week by beating Real Zaragoza on Saturday night to give them a welcome, if brief, stay at the top of the table ahead of Sunday’s games.

The 1-0 triumph came just four days after Malaga secured their spot in the lucrative group stages of the UEFA Champions League and brought some much-needed relief to a club that have been on the verge of financial implosion for much of the summer – forcing them to sell a number of their prized assets.

The inclusion of the likes of Isco, Jeremy Toulalan and Eliseu in Pellegrini’s starting line-up was significant then, conveying the huge bonus of reaching the close of the summer transfer window on Friday without losing any more of their big names. Isco, in particular, has been in fantastic form in recent weeks and put in another impressive display at La Romareda. The former Valencia midfielder certainly looks capable of filling the void left by Santi Cazorla and fans will now be hoping the club can address their problems before the next transfer window opens in January.

Far from imploding, Malaga seem to be developing a backs-against-the-wall attitude in the face of adversity, and the deadline day addition of Javier Saviola, Roque Santa Cruz, Manuel Iturra and Oguchi Onyewu will add some much-needed experience to a squad that was previously stretched to its limits. There is still a huge amount of uncertainty surrounding the club of course. Nevertheless, as fans open their newspapers this morning they will be buoyed by the sight of Malaga sitting level second behind Barcelona and three points above defending champions Real Madrid.

Slightly less unexpected as Malaga’s start has been that of Joaquin Caparros’ Mallorca, who occupy second place after beating Real Sociedad 1-0 in Palma on Saturday night. The Islanders narrowly missed out on European football last season but they have been busy over the summer and the acquisition of players such as Javi Marquez from Espanyol and, maybe more significantly, Giovani Dos Santos from Tottenham could make them a side to watch over the next few months.

While Malaga and Mallorca both have the potential to maintain a serious challenge for European places this season, it is highly unlikely the remaining side to hold seven points will enjoy such a lofty placing come May. Rayo Vallecano, who owe their place in the Spanish top flight to Raul Tamudo’s stoppage time winner against Granada on the final day of last season, were more than fortunate to come away with a point from their game against Sevilla at Vallecas this weekend.

The visitors managed to miss two penalties after dominating the game and Michel’s frustrations were also surely exacerbated by the fact that Rayo played the final 20 minutes a man light after goalkeeper Ruben Martinez was sent off for hauling down Ivan Rakitic in the penalty area. The Croatian international then managed to blast the subsequent spot kick wide to leave the home side with an unlikely point – much to Michel’s disgust.

Finally, special mention must also go to Athletic this weekend. The Basques picked up their first points of the season by beating Valladolid 2-0, although Marcelo Bielsa refused to get carried away after the game, saying:  “This will be valuable if it is a starting point. For now it just represents an interruption of the sequence of two defeats.”

After a shocking start to the campaign, it is somewhat understandable that the Argentine is being cautious. However, a win can do wonders for confidence – just look at Malaga.