Following a pleasant jaunt to the ends of the earth over the past month, the World Superbike Championship returns to more familiar European ground as it ushers in the second half of what has been an enthralling season thus far.

Although the statistics of three winners from 14 races and a championship lead of 53 points would tend to suggest otherwise, the pendulum effect between Noriyuki Haga and Ben Spies, and occasionally Michel Fabrizio, not to mention to intense tussles going on behind, has made the first half of the season enjoyably competitive nonetheless.

For the moment, that pendulum has swung a bit closer to Spies, although Haga's advantage can still be described as substantial. Even if Spies wins both races at Misano and Haga fails to finish, the Japanese rider will continue to lead heading to Donington Park...

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While Spies' dominant race victories at Miller Motorsports Park, which were preceded by a record seventh consecutive pole position, didn't come as a massive surprise to those around him, it was brought into sharper focus by Haga's tough weekend.

A spectacular accident prior to qualifying certainly didn't help matters, but while Haga soldiered on and gave glimpses of a challenge in the opening few laps, his pace on each occasion. Spies, on the other hand, was imperious throughout, winning each race by a substantial margin to make some serious in-roads at a particularly crucial moment.

Still, Spies had home advantage, which should make the return to Misano a more even affair. A new venue for Spies, it is however a local event for the Italian-based Yamaha team, while Haga doesn't have the finest record around the picturesque Adriatic circuit either.

Being dragged along by Spies, the in-form Fabrizio is on the cusp of making it a three-way fight for the title having stood on the podium in each of the last six races. While he remains just behind the two main protagonists, and his record at Misano is limited to a best of sixth position, Fabrizio has been the top scorer over the last three rounds and is now beginning to discover the strengths of consistency as he slowly forges his way into contention.

Almost as compelling as the fight at the front, Jonathan Rea has moved into fourth position in the standings, taking over as the top Honda rider in the process. Two podiums in the last four races has helped the Northern Irishman, and his Ten Kate team, mark themselves out as the 'best of the rest', not that it is a status either will necessarily appreciate given their lofty pre-season ambitions. Even so, it is certainly heading in the right direction, and Rea's strong performance in testing recently should provide an added confidence boost.

Max Biaggi and Leon Haslam are poised just behind in fifth and sixth, with both eager to string together a more consistent weekend than of late. Biaggi, competing on home ground again, could have been a bigger threat in the USA had he not been forced to start both races from 16th on the grid, while qualifying faux-pas - as well as that last lap fall in Miller - haven't helped Haslam's hopes either.

Equally in touching distance of the fight for fourth is Tom Sykes, despite an anonymous weekend in the United States, one that saw his unbroken run of 12 top ten finishes come to an end. Misano is another new circuit for the rookie, who will no doubt be turning his attentions to Donington Park in a week's time, but his Yamaha team has a good record around the San Marino circuit and he must now capitalise on it.

Like Rea, Ryuichi Kiyonari and Carlos Checa, gave the Ten Kate team something to smile about at Miller Motorsports Park with some convincing - if not spectacular - performances over the weekend. Still, both remain off the back of the top seven heading to Misano and the circuit wasn't particularly kind to them last season either...

By contrast, some of this year's lesser heralded riders head to Misano looking to recapture some of their form from last season, not least Ruben Xaus, who scored Sterilgarda Ducati's first win twelve months ago by leading a 1-2 from Biaggi.

Both rider and team head to Misano desperate to improve their fortunes after a series of disappointing rounds. Although Xaus' form can be attributed to the 'newness' of his BMW team, a failure to score in the last four races means he is a world away from adding to his 11 WSBK victories...

Sterilgarda Ducati, meanwhile, gave a glimpse of a return to some kind of prominence at Miller, with Shane Byrne qualifying and racing well - save for just two errors that prevented him from getting the results he probably deserved. A home round for the Marco Borciani run squad, a victory repeat is unlikely, but a strong top six should be in the offing at least.

Others to impress at Misano in 2008, Troy Corser, Jakub Smrz and Lorenzo Lanzi, all return with points to prove too, not least the latter after making a return to competition in the USA as the replacement for the injured Regis Laconi.

As for the others currently hobbled on the sidelines, Max Neukirchner, Brendan Roberts and Makoto Tamada remain absent following their Monza accidents, while Karl Muggeridge won't race either after his Miller fall revealed existing injuries. Nonetheless, Misano does see the return of John Hopkins following his eight race lay-off. The American returns to the Stiggy Honda team attempting to pick up where he left off on his debut back at Valencia.

Elsewhere, Yukio Kagayama plans to race on despite picking up ailments in the USA, while Fonsi Nieto and Gregorio Lavilla will continue to deputise for Neukirchner and Roberts. Alex Polita will ride the Celani Suzuki in place of Muggeridge.

Meanwhile, Jamie Hacking's superb turn at Miller Motorsports Park - when he scored Kawasaki's best result since the end of 2007 - has been rewarded with two more outings at Misano and Donington Park.

One rider change has occurred in the three-week gap, with Tommy Hill being dropped from the Althea Honda line-up in favour of their experienced Supersport competitor Matthieu Lagrive.