|Barcelona is seen as the side to beat with players displaying the best football so far in the Spanish league [Reuters]
As Spain's La Liga packs up proceedings for a well-deserved albeit entirely brief Christmas break, the self-entitled "best league in the world" pauses for a moment of reflection.
The first half year off Jose Mourinho in Spain has been overshadowed, spectacularly and deservedly, by the new concept of total football being played over in Barcelona, and the New Year's resolution for the rest of La Liga must surely be to somehow stop the rampaging FC Barcelona in 2011.
It has been fantastic, epoch-marking football from the defending champions in these past months, with Real Madrid offering early glimpses of being up to the Catalan challenge until the end of November, when a 5-0 drubbing at Camp Nou put an end to Mourinho's side's position at the top of the pack in Spain.
So the Spanish capital was perhaps the most interesting place to measure the pulse of the nation in the last round of matches in Spain this year. The Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid was icy and windy and almost sold out, but the football on offer was certainly not of the prettiest sort.
But after a hard-fought 1-0 win against Sevilla in which he brilliantly set up Real Madrid's only goal with an individual piece of skill to help his team maintain their perfect home record, Mesut Ozil looked a suitably contented player.
"I saw the space and went in there and then passed, and Di Maria did a world class finish," Ozil told Al Jazeera. "I'm really happy for him. We played well, I think. Our aim was to score the 1-0 as soon as possible. Of course we had difficulty implementing this, I think the referee should have given us a few penalties and then we could have had a more comfortable win.
"But we are happy to win 1-0 and get the three points. The game against Sevilla was important, we want to get as far as possible in all three competitions. That is our aim for the season."
The controversy following the game centered around Mourinho's performance in the press conference, but those well-placed media distractions should not take our view away from the essential part of this half-time analysis: the football being played.
And it is undoubtedly Barcelona which is showing the best football in Spain, and arguably in the world, at the moment.
Last weekend I was at Barcelona's Camp Nou to marvel at Pep Guardiola's classy side dismantle a useful Real Sociedad 5-0. Is this the best side of all times? Just maybe.
You'd definitely have to put them up there with the contenders, and as Pep rightly said: "You just don't know for how long this will last."
So enjoy the brilliant passing and delightful, ballet like artistry while it lasts. Poetry on the football pitch. Who'd have thought it possible?
Perhaps the best indicator of the difference between the top two – which in numerical terms is, to Mourinho's and Madrid's credit, just two points to Barcelona's advantage – is to talk to some of the players who have played against both teams in the past weeks.
Sevilla went to Camp Nou a few weeks back and walked away with a 5-0 defeat. At the Bernabeu, they looked good for a win, as winger Diego Capel told me after the game.
"It was bad luck, the team did a good job here and we were able to be on level terms with Real Madrid, so it was a shame not to win here. I think there are a lot of differences between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the moment.
"It's true that Madrid have a great team, but Barcelona is the team that's showing the best football at the moment. I think Barcelona is above everyone else at the moment, and they're showing it in the results and the image of football they're giving. Here in Madrid we had the victory closer, and it's a shame that we didn't get the reward we were looking for."
The biggest difference between both teams is that Barcelona is a team made up of a majority of players from the club's "La Masia" youth system who know each other without having to look where the other player is, whilst Real Madrid is sending many of their own youth team products away to other clubs.
One of those cases, Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo, looked dangerous throughout the game and had the best chance to open the scoring in the second half when he fired over from close range: "My chance was a clear chance and I didn't take it. If I had scored the game would have changed. I am a Madrid youth team product and it is always nice to play here in the Bernabeu. I hope to play more games here."
But Negredo too was aware of the differences between the top two sides in Spain, saying: "They are very different games to play here in the Bernabeu and in the Nou Camp. I think Madrid plays one football and Barcelona another type, but they're both equally effective.
"Barcelona has more of the ball and they dominate the play, and Madrid is more of a counter-attacking team and with very much speed up front. In that sense, they both kill you."
It has indeed been a fine half year for both arch-rivals, with Barcelona of course coming out on top thanks to their spectacular home demolition, to the score of 5-0, of Madrid in November. Behind them, Villareal and Espanyol have surprised with their successful football on much tighter budgets, showing that it is indeed not all about the money.
And that New year resolution for all fans must surely be: Go to the Nou Camp to watch the spectacle of Pep's team playing live. There's nothing quite like it.
Source: Al Jazeera