La Liga is well known for having two powerhouse clubs. The long-standing duopoly that Real Madrid and Barcelona hold over the league, their intense and historical rivalry, record breaking transfers and their collections of some of football’s most talented players are undoubtedly attractive for fans looking for their fix of Spanish football.
Every now and then, a Valencia or an Atletico or even a Deportivo surpass expectations and snatch a title away but, by and large, it’s a foregone conclusion that the big two will contest the title every season.
Beyond that and largely going unnoticed is La Liga’s revolving fourth place door. The last decade has seen no less than eight clubs finish in that final Champions League spot. Unlike the Premier League’s battery of established Champions League representatives, La Liga is far more open and unpredictable.
This season, with Atletico’s greater quality and consistency expected to take them closer to the title than the fourth place ‘trophy’; and with the usual suspects Valencia and Sevilla having indifferent starts to the campaign, we could well see another open race.
Occupying that fourth spot currently are Villareal. A familiar name, memorable for their bright yellow kits and storybook run to the Champions League semi-finals under the guidance of current Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini. A relegation and two sixth placed finishes since, Villareal are steadily and quietly improving under Marcelino.
The loss of last season’s top-scorer Luciano Vietto to Atletico was expected to hit Villareal hard, but his absence has been offset by the encouraging resurrection of Roberto Soldado’s form and the shrewd addition of Cedric Bakambu, while the gap in defence left by Gabriel’s departure to Arsenal has been ably filled by the young Ivorian Eric Bailly.
Five wins from their first six league games had them briefly topping the table, and a minor blip has since been ended after their win over Sevilla last weekend.
More impressive than Villareal, however, have been Celta Vigo. Third in the table, the Galician club have been the team to watch this year. If their 4-1 dismantling of Barcelona wasn’t impressive enough, they also beat Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, a rarity by itself, while completely and stylishly outplaying their hosts.
Eduardo Berrizo’s team play with an attacking intent that’s seen them score 21 goals in 10 games (only Barcelona and Real Madrid have scored more). Much like Soldado, Iago Aspas has put a poor period in his career behind him to rediscover form with his boyhood club, while the performances of winger Nolito continues to earn him appreciative glances from some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
The most heartening thing is that Villareal and Celta both had to endure relegation to the second division and put together their squads from limited resources, yet, in a short space of time, have climbed up the league to challenge for the European spaces, all the while playing exciting football.
Valencia, who finished fourth last season, find themselves five points off the pace and all is not well. Despite winning 3-0 last weekend against struggling neighbours Levante, certain sections of the crowd made their contempt for manager Nuno known.
A handful of decent results are not distracting fans from the hardly inspiring performances that aren’t becoming of an expensively assembled squad.
Sevilla, in this year’s Champions League via the Europa League, are in an even worse position down in the bottom half of the table, eight points behind Villareal.
Unai Emery’s side have struggled with injuries to key personnel in defence, and have looked painfully limited and short of imagination in attack, where the manager’s reliance on powerful holding midfielders is proving to be a hindrance.
How this four horse – potentially five horse should Athletic Bilbao find consistency again – race unfolds could well be influenced by the Europa League. Now that the winner of UEFA’s second tier competition can claim a spot in the Champions League, there’s extra incentive for teams to focus on a trophy that La Liga clubs already valued highly.
Villareal and Athletic, who qualified through the league, may look to follow in Sevilla’s footsteps and become La Liga’s fifth representative in the Champions League. Sevilla and Valencia, meanwhile, may view it as a potential contingency plan should they drop out of their respective groups and continue to flounder in the league.
Should the priorities of these teams shift, Celta, not involved in any European competition, could profit hugely.
Undoubtedly, Valencia and Sevilla have larger and stronger squads than Celta and Villareal. It’s expected that, as the season progresses, this greater quality and depth will tell, especially as Celta and Villareal will be fearful of clubs coming in for their stars in January.
However, while the season is still young, the potential is certainly there for another compelling contest for La Liga’s fourth Champions League spot.