In England much has been made about the three way duel between the three sides from the capital as they compete for Champions League football the following season. Like Manchester United and Manchester City in the Premier League Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are all virtually guaranteed a place in the Champions League but the final spot is very much up for grabs. Whilst Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal compete between themselves you can argue there are seven teams all in with a chance of finishing fourth in La Liga. Of course Malaga will not be able to compete in Europe next season but nevertheless their achievements on the pitch this season shouldn’t be tainted by what has been going on off it.
Let’s start with the team currently in pole position for Champions League football, Real Sociedad. A surprise late challenger for the fourth spot this is in no small part down to a twelve match unbeaten run which stretches back to the start of the year. This run includes impressive victories over Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and Sociedad will be looking to continue this run when they visit Rayo Vallecano on Sunday. In terms of their remaining fixtures the two that really stand out for Txuri-urdin are the clash with Valencia in two weeks’ time and then at the end of May when they face off against Real Madrid. The match against Valencia could go a long way in deciding who finishes in the top four with both sides pushing hard for European football. Real Madrid were the last side to beat Sociedad and whilst Real have nothing to play for in terms of the title they will be anxious to make sure neighbours Atletico don’t finish above them.
Just two points behind lie Valencia themselves on a fairly impressive run having only lost twice in the league since the turn of the year. Roberto Soldado and Jonas have both been pivotal in Valencia’s quest for Champions League football and both will be key as they play Espanyol on Saturday. Five of Valencia’s eight remaining games see them take on teams around them and it is imperative they don’t drop needless points in the games against teams in the bottom half of the table. Valencia’s opponents after Espanyol Malaga will have to pick themselves up after their heart-breaking Champions League exit against Dortmund in mid-week. They play Osasuna this weekend and whilst on paper it may seem like they have nothing to play for it is a very different situation for those inside the club. Back in December the club was hit with a one season ban from all European competitions for unpaid bills but the team is quietly confident they will be successful in their appeal. Their hearing could be as early as 14 May which would take place before their final two matches of the season. Until the hearing you can be certain that Malaga will not be taking their foot off the gas. Level with Malaga are Real Betis themselves a shock after finishing 13th the previous season. Los Verdiblancos play Sevilla tonight in the derby and a win would keep their European aspirations right on track. Unfortunately things don’t get any easier for Betis as they face both Real Madrid and Barcelona in their next two matches. Aside from that though you could argue that the rest of their games are winnable and if they can keep picking up points the teams around them may just drop enough to allow them to sneak into fourth.
A few points further back lie Getafe and Rayo Vallecano, both on 44. Getafe have kept a remarkable five clean sheets in a row and they haven’t lost since their 6-1 hammering at Camp Nou in February. Whilst their chances of getting into Europe seem very slim right now they are playing the likes of Betis, Malaga and Valencia in the coming weeks. If they can take points off the teams around them a late push for Europe wouldn’t be completely out of the question. Following their 2-0 victory over Celta Vigo last week Paco Jemez claimed that European football was no longer a dream for his side but a reality. The club that is known in England as Michu’s former side picked themselves up from two successive defeats to secure victory last week but realistically Europa League is the best they can hope for. Like Getafe they face a lot of teams around them (the two sides actually will play each other on May 29th) and with a bit of luck anything could happen.
Spain’s top division is often derided for not being competitive with people claiming the top two’s dominance makes it boring. I would argue that with the Manchester sides dominating this year La Liga is equally interesting if not more so than the Premier League in terms of European qualification. With the Copa del Ray final being contested by the two teams from Madrid as low as seventh place will secure European football and that is why even Levante in 11th could still be playing in Europe next season. The Premier League’s established elite may be challenged more regularly than in Spain but the team’s just below Spain’s top two would take great offence were anyone to claim Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only sides worth watching in Spain. The reigning Europa League champions are Spanish whilst the final was an all-Spanish affair. Atletico may have crashed out early on last season but the performances of Malaga this season demonstrate that Spain have more than just two good clubs.