Tracking Europe: La Liga Contenders for UCL Qualification

Between Valencia/Atlético and Sevilla/Levante this weekend, there have been some big results that could prove vital in the race for the remaining two UCL spots for next year. It occurred to me that people – even people who don’t necessarily love La Liga – might be interested in the reading about the prospects of the likely contenders.

Also, I’m interested in writing about it.

I’ll post an analysis of the round relating to the race for the UCL in the next couple days, but right now I want to identify the teams I see as the most likely contenders.

Atlético Madrid

They’ve been one of the most impressive sides in Europe since Diego Simeone took over partway through last season.

They stormed their way to a second Europa title in three years, adding an impressive 34.171 points to their UEFA coefficient in the process. As a point of reference, that’s more than Bayern Munich or Chelsea earned and equal to what Barcelona did. Their accomplishments over the last four years have earned them a place in UEFA’s top ten, and within a few points of seventh.

They missed out on this year’s UCL by finishing two points behind Málaga, who claimed the fourth, but rather than mope about playing in Europa, they’ve started the season off with a bang. They decisively beat the Champions League title winners, Chelsea, in the European Super Cup, have won all three of their Europa fixtures thus far, and were unbeaten in the league until last night.

It is November, and Atlético sit in second place in the table, three points behind Barcelona and an impressive five points ahead of their cross-town rivals. Will they mount a real challenge for the title, or even second place? Maybe not, but they have to be considered favorites to take third or fourth.

Valencia CF

Valencia have been “the best of the rest” in La Liga for several years, snatching up third for three successive seasons. They’ve sat in a sort of no man’s land – significantly behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, but significantly behind everyone else. Their consistent appearances in Europe for the last four years have earned them tenth place in UEFA’s rankings, and they tragically missed out on being in the first pot this year by less than a point.

They began to stumble toward the end of the season last year, however, and that inconsistent form has carried over to the start of this one. One week, they’re holding Real Madrid to a draw at the Bernabeu. The next, they’re losing to Real Zaragoza. Their strong home record is all that has saved them this season from hovering around the relegation zone – the only point they’ve taken on the road was at Real Madrid.

However, they slowly seem to be pulling themselves together, and their poor league form has not extended to the Champions League (where they sit at the top of their table on goal differential over BATE Borisov and Bayern Munich) or the Copa del Rey. They finally seem to be stringing wins together, and given their recent history, they are certainly a force to be reckoned with, especially since, unlike Atlético Madrid, they have proved themselves more than capable of getting points from fixtures with both Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Sevilla FC

Sevilla are one of the biggest clubs in Spain, and are also among the most successful. They are the last team outside of the big two to have won the Copa del Rey, knocking out Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona along the way in 2009. They also won it in 2007, and dispatched Real Madrid 3-6 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup that summer.

Sevilla have also enjoyed international success in the last decade, winning the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) twice, in 2006 and 2007. They also claimed the European Super Cup by beating Barcelona 0-3 in the summer of 2006.

Since then, Sevilla have fallen on hard times, losing some of their best players to other teams, including Dani Alves and later Adriano, both of whom now play at Barcelona. Last year, they failed to qualify for Europe for the first time since the 2002-2003 season, and they continue to struggle with finishing.

However, they’ve had a good start to the season, including a deserved win against Real Madrid and an undeserved loss against Barcelona, and currently sit 7th in the table. They’ve also been able to hold onto one of the best wingers in the world, Jesús Navas, who has been a major contributor to Spain’s recent success on the national level. Additionally, unlike the other contenders, Sevilla will not have to juggle three competitions, which could give them an edge.

Málaga CF

This is Málaga’s debut season in the UEFA Champions League, but they’ve taken it by storm, winning their first three matches and gaining admirers across Europe in the process. They look likely to move on and even potentially to win a group that also includes AC Milan, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Anderlecht.

They’ve also done well domestically. After finishing fourth last season, they had a very tumultuous summer, and most people assumed that they would flame out. Instead, they’ve kept up a strong run of form in the league and currently sit fourth in the league.

Unfortunately, Málaga lack depth and financial stability, and they’ve begun to slip down in the standings, losing ground to Real Madrid this week. However, given the level of skill they’ve shown themselves capable of, they’ve got to be considered as an outside possibility to make Europe again next year.

Levante UD

Levante are still a new face to La Liga, with the bulk of their eight seasons in the top flight played in the last ten years. They’ve met with very limited success in their years in first division, typically finishing toward the bottom of the table.

However, last season, Levante became one of the Cinderella stories of the year. Despite being ugly, poor, and bad at football, they sat at the top of the table until the end of October, and handed Real Madrid one of their only defeats of the season. Once they dropped out of first, it was assumed that they would fade away again, but they hung in there and ultimately finished sixth (a club best) and qualified for the Europa League.

This season, they’ve picked up where they left off. They’re well on track to qualify for the knock out rounds in Europa, and they currently sit fifth in the table. Always a bit inconsistent but indisputably capable of gritting their teeth and grinding out improbable results by sheer force of will, Levante could snatch up fourth place if the others give them a chance.

Round Up

So, to summarize, the five teams that I think are most likely to challenge for the UCL positions are Atlético Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, Málaga, and Levante. Realistically, I think it will likely come down to the first three, but if Valencia continue to do poorly away from home and Sevilla continue to have trouble finishing… who knows?

Round 10 analysis to come.

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