La Liga's Relegation Showdown
With La Liga's title race now done and dusted, much of the focus ahead of Saturday’s final round of fixtures has turned to the battle at the bottom of the table. Cordoba have already been relegated, with their first top-flight season in 42 years having been more or less a disaster from start to finish.
Four other teams go into their last game of the season playing for their safety. Two of Granada, Deportivo La Coruña, Almeria and Eibar will stay up, but the other two are going to drop into the Segunda División. Granada (34 points) and Depor (34) have their destiny in their own hands, while Almeria (32) and Eibar (32) must win and hope that results elsewhere go their way.
So the entire seasons of these clubs are set to be decided over one 90 minute spell, something which of course often happens, and could have been avoided had they just picked up a few more points at some point earlier in the calendar.
It certainly adds to the drama, but there does seem something slightly unfair about everything being on the line in a game against a randomly assigned opponent of varying difficulty. This appears especially the case this year, as the form of those at the bottom has fluctuated so greatly over the course of the campaign - something easily apparent if you hit the ‘streaks’ or ‘progress’ tab on WhoScored.com’s La Liga table.
Just a few weeks ago, Granada looked almost certain to go down, having gone 16 games without a win - including the high-profile 9-1 hammering at Real Madrid. The Nazari outfit had won just four times in their first 34 games, two under first coach Joaquin Caparros, and two more under second coach Abel Resino. They had not been out of the bottom three at any stage in 2015 and seemed set for La Segunda.
But third boss of the year - Jose Ramon Sandoval - has worked a remarkable turnaround, and Granada have won each of his three games in charge. Now up to 16th in the table, they know a win in their final fixture and they’ll be safe.
Deportivo La Coruña have also endured a wretched run of results. The Galicians were up in 11th place in early February, and seemed set to secure their safety early. However a run of 14 games without a win saw them drop down and down until last weekend when they beat now safe Levante 2-0 at home to move two points clear of the drop zone. So despite just one victory in the last four months, Depor also go into the final game knowing three points will keep them up.
By contrast, Eibar began their first ever Primera campaign by surprising everyone with a superb run of results. The tiny Basque club were as high as eighth in the table in early February, having won seven of their first 19 matches. But they have just one win since in their last 18 games. Sitting two points behind Depor and Granada now, though, they know they must win on the final day, and then hope for help from elsewhere.
Almeria’s season has not been such a rollercoaster, as they picked up points here and there throughout. They’ve been in either 16th, 17th or 18th since January, and had a bounce in mid-April with consecutive home wins over Granada and Eibar under recently appointed coach Sergi Barjuan. Just one point from four games since means that they are in big trouble ahead of the weekend. Meanwhile Almeria also have a potential three point deduction from FIFA looming over their heads - a punishment which would mean relegation regardless of what happens in their final game.
If that is not complicated enough, La Liga uses head-to-head record, rather than goal difference, to separate teams tied on points. AS have a handy - albeit in Spanish - guide to who comes out on top should two, three or even all four sides finish with the same total. The only safe prediction is that the situation will change many times over the 90 minutes on Sunday and that a late goal at any of the four grounds could have huge consequences.
Given how tightly balanced the relegation battle is, and how likely it is to go right down to the wire, it is striking how huge a role the random nature of the fixture-list plays in all this. Granada’s turnaround under Sandoval has been really impressive, but it has surely helped that they recently faced a Getafe side more or less safe already, already relegated Cordoba, and a Real Sociedad team with minds already moved to next season. Having the good fortune for the fixtures to fall in your favour when your own best players are fit and motivated, or opponents are less focused, looks perhaps the most decisive factor deciding which teams eventually go down.
Granada’s luck in this does not continue on Saturday, however. Sandoval’s side are at home to Atletico Madrid, with Diego Simeone’s team needing a point themselves to be sure of third spot and automatic Champions League qualification. A month ago Atletico would have been sure to win this game, although given both teams’ situation a draw looks quite likely - a situation that could mean the head-to-head record comes into play.
Almeria face an even more difficult challenge as they host Valencia, who will be motivated to win. They need three points to have any chance of catching Atletico to make third place, or at least to hold off the challenge of Sevilla and ensure fourth spot. Los Che’s Champions League aspirations make Almeria’s task all the harder, though it's worth noting that Nuno Espirito Santo's side have won just 1 of their last 6 league games away from home.
Despite currently sitting above the drop zone, Depor’s situation looks drastic, too. They are at the Camp Nou, where champions Barcelona are to hold their title winning party. Maybe, with La Liga won, Luis Enrique might rest some players ahead of their upcoming Copa del Rey and Champions League finals. Or, with the pressure off,Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar may add to their 79 league goals between them this season. The makeup of the Blaugrana XI looks more important than anything Depor themselves can do.
The fixture list has shone more favourably on Eibar - who have the joint-second worst WhoScored rating (6.73) of all teams in La Liga this season - as they are at home to long doomed Cordoba, who have gained two points from their last 19 games. Three points against a team who have long given up on this season could be enough for Gaizka Garitano’s side to avoid the drop. You could argue that the Ipurua outfit deserve some luck due to their outstanding achievement in getting to this stage with a chance to save themselves. Other teams near the bottom may not see it that way, however. Either way, the match-schedule has smiled on the Basque club's hopes.
The well-worn cliché is that, over a 38-game season, the best team wins the title, and the three worst get relegated. But at this stage of the campaign, given the tiny margins involved at the bottom, the randomness of the fixture generator looks just as decisive.