La Liga: Sevilla and Betis tipped to seal Europa League spots
With nine teams in La Liga separated by ten points, between fifth place and thirteenth, ahead of this weekend’s fixtures, it seems clear that the race to secure a place in next season's Europa League will be an exciting one which goes down all the way to the final day of the campaign.
Realistically, some of those aspirants are very unlikely to show enough consistency over their remaining ten games, and we can probably exclude Espanyol, Girona and Eibar from the reckoning (and I am now, naturally, looking forward to one of them winning all ten remaining games to snatch the title away from Barcelona amid scenes of high drama).
That leaves us with six teams competing to take the two available places, although that could very easily be three due to Valencia’s cup exploits (of which more in a minute).
Those teams are: Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Real Betis, Alaves and Valencia – and that group could be joined by Getafe if they lose form and drop down from their current fourth place (although, as I explained in my previous article, I don’t expect that to happen).
The good news for Valencia – and perhaps everyone else – is that already have one chance of qualifying for next season's Europa League after reaching the Copa del Rey final. If they win that game – which will not be an easy task as the other finalists are Barcelona – Los Che will be automatically into the Europa League, wherever they finish in La Liga. And if Barcelona win, the extra Europa League qualifying spot, usually given to the domestic cup winners, will instead go to the seventh placed team in La Liga (on the assumption that Barca will finish in the top four and advance into the Champions League).
However, just to make things even more complicated, Valencia can also take the back door route into the Champions League if they manage to win the Europa League, which has a pretty good chance of materialising after they progressed to the quarter finals against local rivals Villarreal (a tie I will write about in an upcoming article). Which means finishing seventh could well be good enough to advance into the Europa League next season, but not eighth (even if Valencia win the Europa League) because the maximum number of clubs allowed to qualify for European competition is seven…are you following any of this?
So, if any of that makes sense, we are gradually whittling down the potential Europa League qualifiers from La Liga into a more manageable list, and the two teams I’m tipping to secure the two guaranteed places are the Sevilla-based clubs, Sevilla and Real Betis.
It has been a bit of a topsy-turvy season for both, to say the least. Sevilla started off at a lightning pace, for a while looking like possible contenders for the league title. But by the time winter set in, the vast number of games they are having to play – having started their Europa League qualifying campaign in July – with a relatively thin squad really started to catch up with them, and they went through a terrible run of form before harshly firing manager Pablo Machin just before the international break.
So Sevilla will now spend the rest of the season under the temporary leadership of wily old veteran Joaquin Caparros, who has promoted himself from his backroom position for his 179th spell in charge (OK, I'm exaggerating...but not by much).
More than the identity of their coach, though, I'm expecting Sevilla to mount a strong finish to the season for the simple fact that they have been knocked out of both cup competitions and therefore, finally, have a much more manageable fixture list to contend with. This should allow the undoubted quality of their strongest side to shine through, and with players like Wissam Ben Yedder, Andre Silva, Jesus Navas, Ever Banega and Pablo Sarabia they should be well placed to finish in the top six at least.
Their crosstown neighbours Betis, however, I'm less confident about, and I am really only tipping them for a top six position through sentiment rather than conviction. I'm happy to admit to being a bit of a fanboy of Betis coach Quique Setien, whose ultra-purist passing style is captivating and infuriating in equal measures but earns him a lot of credit, I believe, for sticking to what he believes in.
Betis have been through a sticky patch in recent weeks, including a 4-1 thrashing against Leo Messi-inspired Barça just before the international break, and to be honest there is no way of knowing how they will respond over the remainder of the campaign. For the sake of Setien's future, I hope they can rouse themselves for a big finale.
So I'm going with Getafe to maintain their current fourth position, Sevilla and Betis to take fifth and sixth ahead of Valencia, who will be distracted by the cups (but probably win one of them), and Alaves, whose outstanding season will finally run out of steam, dropping down to eighth but claiming local bragging rights ahead of fellow Basques Real Sociedad and Athletic Club.
And you? Share your predictions in the comments below and let's see who gets it right...