Whoever thought bottom-dwellers Rayo Vallecano would be satisfied with their upset victory over Valencia two weeks ago was sorely mistaken, and the team's surprise win over Real Sociedad has blown the race for the Europa League tickets wide open.
While the battle for the UEFA Champions League spots may be all but over (Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have a healthy lead over the rest of the pack), there are six teams left with a realistic shot at finishing in top seven and securing the EL tickets that come with those spots.
Champions League spots
The top three will qualify directly for the group stages of the UCL, while the team that places fourth will enter the playoffs.
Bilbao trail Barcelona by 12 points, and it's safe to say that gap will be too much to overcome for the Basque outfit. Barcelona, Real and Atletico will battle for the league title and comfortably qualify for the group stages.
Athletic hold a seven-point lead over Villarreal and look set to hold onto that. Expect Bilbao to enter the UCL playoffs.
Europa League spots
Note: as Real Madrid and Barcelona will be playing in the final of the Copa Del Rey and both teams will qualify for the UCL, the third EL ticket will go to the team that finishes the season in seventh place.
This is where the fun starts. The difference between Villarreal and Levante is a mere eight points, and while it might seem like a long shot for Les Granotes to catch up to The Yellow Submarine, the battle for spots five, six and seven is far from over.
As of right now, Villarreal and Real Sociedad lead the race for an EL finish, with Sevilla right on their tails. Valencia, Espanyol and Levante would need a bit of help to catch up with the aforementioned teams, but the seven-point gap between them and Sociedad isn't impossible to overcome.
With ties against Atletico, Barcelona, Sociedad, Bilbao and Valencia still to come, the road won't be easy for Villarreal. The club has been struggling in recent weeks with losses against Real and Granada and will need to finish strong to hold onto the fifth spot.
Real Sociedad notched an impressive win over Barcelona three weeks ago and followed it up with back-to-back losses against Sevilla and Rayo Vallecano. Like Villarreal, the Basque outfit cannot afford to continue their losing streak, and with Real Madrid, Valencia, Bilbao and Villarreal still on the schedule, things won't get any easier from here.
Sevilla are level on points with Sociedad but are currently sitting in seventh place due to a lesser goal difference. They currently have a three-game winning streak in La Liga, but the EL loss against Real Betis has somewhat tempered the team's enthusiasm.
Forward Carlos Bacca said at a press conference after the game (via Inside Spanish Football):
We have to turn the page. Unfortunately, yesterday we lost the battle, but not the war. There’s still ninety minutes for us to fight to the death, but before that comes, we’ve got another really important game.
We can’t think about Betis right now. We have to be calm, because there’s still ninety minutes to go. We’re focused on Valladolid, on the fans being behind us and that we try to do better. Then on Monday, we’ll prepare ourselves for the second-leg on Thursday, which won’t be easy.
Of course, turning the page is easier said than done, and one can only assume some of the players will be thinking more about the second leg against Betis than the league game against Valladolid.
Valencia, Espanyol and Levante all trail Sociedad by seven points and of those three teams, Valencia appear to be the only squad with the talent necessary to go on a run and close that gap in a hurry.
A direct battle with the Basque outfit would be a good way to start. Full-back Antonio Barragan said as much in a press conference (via Inside Spanish Football):
We have enough time to rest and prepare for the game. We want to have a good match and get the three points. It’s true that Real Sociedad are ahead of us, but we’ll be trying to cut the distance between us. We’ll confront the game as if they were European rivals. We need to get these three points, so we can keep growing.
Despite the bad run of results and the schedule ahead, Sociedad look to be too talented to give up sixth place.
Valencia are the wild cards here, with games against both Sociedad and Villarreal. The club could play spoiler for at least one of those teams (let's all hope for a scenario similar to the one that gave us the epic game between Valencia and Sociedad last year) but in my predictions, it won't happen.
Sociedad finish fifth, Villarreal take sixth place and Sevilla win the race for the final EL ticket.