Although the 2017/18 La Liga season has been somewhat uncommon, the same teams are jostling for European qualification. Who are they, and why the battle for the third Europa League spot will the most entertaining?
Much like in England, the situation at the top in Spain is all but settled. Two consecutive draws by Barcelona have let Atletico Madrid narrow the gap to “only” 7 points. However, considering Barca’s form throughout the season, I’d be shocked if it didn’t end up winning the title. A Champions League spot is already secured. There are six teams that have scored more goals in La Liga than Atletico Madrid, and one that has the same amount of goals. Regardless of that fact, Los Colchoneros are in 2nd place, 9 points ahead of 3rd placed Valencia. How? Defense. They have the best defense in the league, having conceded only 9 times in 23 matches so far. Other than the leaders (11), no one has conceded less than 21. Additionally, Simeone’s men have lost only once, in December to Espanyol. Even with 15 rounds left to play, their CL spot is booked.
Valencia’s performances and results were the second biggest surprise, after Real Madrid’s indifference, in the first half in Spain’s top level. “The Bats” started the season with 13 consecutive games without a loss, including 8 straight wins from Round 5 to Round 12. The demanding schedule, which saw them play the Madrid teams and Barcelona (twice) in a two-week span (all losses) clipped its wings a bit. Yet, Valencia is not about to quit. It is a highly skilled squad that former Villarreal manager Marcelino has created. If the management is able to keep the core (Mina, Soler and Gaya are chased by many European clubs), Valencia will be a dangerous team to face in next season’s Champions League. Even with only 6 points separating it and 5th placed Villarreal, I have no doubt in my mind Valencia will qualify.
Real Madrid sitting at 4th place, 17 points behind its eternal rival, tells you a lot about how its season has gone so far. Even if it manages to win all the fixtures remaining on its schedule, it’s unlikely it’ll be able to catch Atletico Madrid, let alone Barcelona. That doesn’t mean Zidane’s men won’t try, though. In all likelihood, they finish 3rd, jumping over Valencia in the process.
The Europa League qualification situation in La Liga is more complicated. There are three spots up for grabs. Since Sevilla reached the Copa Del Rey final, it has already booked one of them. Almost the entire league, starting from Villarreal and ending with 16th placed Alaves (only 12 points between all those teams), are still in play for the other two spots. Of course, “The Yellow Submarine” is the main favorite for one of those two spots. The third, well, it’s anyone’s guess. Eibar is currently ranked 3rd with 35 points, followed by Betis with 33, Celta Vigo with 32, Girona, Getafe, and so on. With matches against Barcelona, Celta Vigo, Villarreal and Real Madrid coming up, I expect Eibar to lose a few spots by the time April knocks on the door. A road trip to Atletico Madrid in the last round is not a good sign for their chances to keep that 7th place either.
Betis has a really talented squad (Mandi, Bartra, Boudebouz, Tello, Camarasa), but the schedule doesn’t promise a favorable destiny. Visits to Madrid (Atletico) and Bilbao, along with the always electric derby versus Sevilla, are three of its last five encounters. April is going to be extremely strenuous for Celta Vigo, with Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Barcelona, Valencia and Villarreal all scheduled to play against it in the same month. Two trips to Madrid, one in March (Atletico) and one in May (Real), are also part of the remaining 15 games. Despite having two of the league’s best scorers in Maximiliano Gomez and Iago Aspas, it will require a Herculean feat for The Sky Blues to play in Europe come August. Girona, Getafe and Leganes are the next three clubs, but they play not to lose, rather than to win, and such clubs rarely achieve something significant.
Bilbao and Sociedad, two teams that have had unusually bad seasons, follow. They both have the potential to turn it around, and it’s not like the teams in front of them are ahead by much. Both Basque squads are participating in the Europa League, and are still in play following the first legs. Dealing with two competitions has put a dent on their domestic results. As soon as they get knocked out, as disappointing as that would be, it would also allow them to focus on the league. Consequently, claiming a Europa League spot is entirely feasible. We’ll see what happens.