In Spain, one of the New Year's Eve traditions includes eating twelve grapes before the stroke of midnight, one grape for each of the last twelve seconds of the year. Photo courtesy of Camino Z.

As 2010 arrives through the doorstep, La Liga returns with a vengeance from the winter break that seemingly flew by so quickly.  As soon as these players finish their grapes and cava to ring in the new year, the focus needs to return to their football responsibilities.

Nearing the conclusion of the first half of the season, the top four teams in La Liga will encounter matches where they would be favored to earn the three points, but if there is a week to steal a result, the first round of matches after the holiday vacation might be one of the best times to accomplish this feat.

Surging Villarreal will visit the Camp Nou and face FC Barcelona, the newly-christened Club World Cup champions, and Sevilla will hope to curb their stumbling form against an Atlético Madrid team who will look to shrug off 2009 and start anew in 2010.

At the opposite end of the table, Xerez’s bleak chances of staving off relegation will become even darker if they do not win at El Estadio de los Juego Mediterráneos against the home side Almería.  17th place Almería has not won since early November, and they recently fired their manager Hugo Sánchez.

Xerez may have overachieved in progressing to the top flight of Spanish football, but if they ultimately regress back to the Segunda División, they do not want to bow out like Derby County did in the 2007-08 English Premier League season when the Rams finished with a 1-8-29 record and a record low 11 points (the record low for points in La Liga since it went to a 38 match schedule and three points for a win was 13 points by Sporting Gijón in 1997-98 with a 2-7-29 record).

The times listed are Eastern Standard Time (EST) and include the pregame pleasantries, although sometimes the matches on the DIRECTV La Liga specific channels may not go to match coverage until right before kickoff.

Jan. 2

Valencia vs. Espanyol – 11:55 AM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN 360

Barcelona vs. Villarreal – 1:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN 360

Atlético Madrid vs. Sevilla – 3:55 PM on Gol TV

Jan. 3

Almería vs. Xerez – 10:45 AM on DirecTV channel 456

Getafe vs. Real Valladolid – 10:45 AM on DirecTV channel 457

Sporting Gijón vs. Málaga – 10:45 AM on DirecTV channel 458

Real Zaragoza vs. Deportivo La Coruña – 10:55 AM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN 360

Mallorca vs. Athletic Bilbao – 12:55 PM on Gol TV

Osasuna vs. Real Madrid – 2:55 PM on Gol TV

Unfortunately, the Racing de Santander – Tenerife matchup at El Sardinero will not be seen on US TV.

Copa del Rey

The Copa del Rey returns in January for four consecutive mid-weeks, as the top teams enforce their squad rotations and the lower table/lower division teams look to further their Cinderella cup runs.  While the Barcelona – Sevilla match might provide the best quality of the eight matches in this coming mid-week, many are still captivated by little Alcorcón, the dragon-slayers of Real Madrid.  On the surface, Alcorcón received a favorable draw against relegation-fighting Racing de Santander, but Racing likely sees the Copa del Rey as their only chance to be significant this season.  Expect a full-strength squad and 100% effort from Racing against the outsiders from Madrid.

Jan. 5

Barcelona vs. Sevilla – 3:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN 360

Jan. 6

Celta de Vigo vs. Villarreal – 11:55 AM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN 360

Alcorcón vs. Racing de Santander – 1:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN 360

Valencia vs. Deportivo La Coruña – 1:55 PM on Gol TV

Recreativo Huelva vs. Atlético Madrid – 3:55 PM on Gol TV

Jan. 7

Málaga vs. Getafe – 3:55 PM on Gol TV

The dawn of the new year as seen through a narrow street in Peñiscola, Spain