With Atletico Madrid's 3-0 loss to Osasuna last week, it's looking like La Liga will once again be a two-horse race. Even that two-horse race seems a bit one-sided, as Real Madrid are hitting their peak form, while Barcelona are dealing with all kinds of problems on and off the pitch.
That means the only real compelling race left is for fourth place and the final Champions League spot.
Here's a look at the table following Saturday's action:
|La Liga Table Week 27|
Only Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal have a realistic shot at fourth, with Levante in seventh place and seven places back despite having played one more match. Valencia are eight points back having played as many matches as Sociedad, Bilbao and Villarreal, but it's going to take a herculean effort in order to climb four spots.
Here's a deeper look at the three clubs left in the race for the final Champions League spot.
The one thing La Real have going for themselves is that they have been here before. Although Philippe Montanier was at the helm at this point last season, the players at least know what it takes to get into fourth place. They won't feel burdened by expectation, nor will they panic if things aren't going well later into the year.
It's hard to believe that this is the same Real Sociedad team that was dumped out of the Champions League group stage without winning a single match. From about November on, Jagoba Arrasate has his side flying.
Speaking about Sociedad's top-four push, Arrasate said, per Inside Spanish Football:
There’s two teams behind us, as well as Levante, who are eight points behind us. We’ve got direct clashes coming up. Now we’re playing Sevilla and soon we’ll be playing against Valencia as well. Anything that we can get against those teams, or that they can’t take from us, means that we maintain our advantage or could increase it.
We have to secure our first objective first, so that we can then push for fourth place later. What we want to do is win the game tomorrow, to get the three points, so that we can distance ourselves further from a direct rival and also so we can get closer to fourth place.
As long as Carlos Vela and Antoine Griezmann remain on their great run of form this year, Sociedad could give Athletic Bilbao a real run.
What a turnaround this has been for Villarreal. This time last year, they were toiling in the Segunda Division. Now they're in fifth place, seven points off Athletic. Even if the Yellow Submarine end up on the outside looking in, the 2013/14 season has been a major step forward and signals a major return for the club.
The bubble may be about ready to pop, though. Villarreal have been a bit inconsistent recently, winning three and losing three in their last six matches. The 2-0 home loss to Celta Vigo and 1-0 defeat to Real Valladolid stick out. Those are valuable points dropped right there and could prove costly by the end of the season.
A date with Athletic Bilbao on March 17 will decide if Villarreal are for real. Taking only a point may not be enough, either. With the match at El Madrigal, they really need to be getting the victory.
This race is Bilbao's to lose. Although they have a game in hand on Sociedad and Villarreal, at worst, they're four points clear when the dust settles on Matchday 26.
Athletic have a couple of tough tests ahead, as they're on the road to both Valencia and Villarreal over the next two weeks. Although many point out how great they are at the new San Mames, Athletic Bilbao have the fifth-best road record in the league.
Playing Barcelona at the Nou Camp will be tough, but the intimidation factor could be lessened if the walls start closing in on Tata Martino any more than they presently are.
If Athletic can get a draw from that match and beat Real Sociedad on May 11, they should be in the Champions League next season.
Of the three clubs remaining, Bilbao might also be the most entertaining side to see in Europe next year.
Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe summed it up so well back in December:
You have to admire their Basque-only policy, even if it does border on the nationalistic side, and Ernesto Valverde brings all the entertainment of Marcelo Bielsa without all of the demanding training sessions that wear out his welcome and kill his team by season's end.
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