Tracking Europe: La Liga, Matchday 10

Something pretty catastrophic would have to happen for Barcelona and Real Madrid to fail to qualify for the UCL, but what about the other two spots? The competition for them is always heated, and this year, it doesn’t look like one of them will automatically go to Valencia.

So, throughout the season, I’m going to be tracking the five most likely contenders for those UCL spots, and recapping how their prospects look. Click through for matchday 10.

Note: This is the second post in a series. The first post detailing the teams I think are the most likely contenders can be found here.

Atlético Madrid

Result: Loss (Valencia 2-0 Atlético Madrid)
Change in position: None (2)

On one hand, it’s tempting to say that Atlético should have won this. Valencia have been looking weak this season, and the three points away against them while they’re not playing well would have been quite valuable.

On the other, it’s difficult to call them out on failing to get a result against Valencia, whose only blemish on an otherwise perfect home record is a draw against Deportivo La Coruña in the second round. Even the big two have really struggled against Valencia in the last year, including this season – their sole away result was at Real Madrid in the first round, and they nearly took a point off Barcelona at the Camp Nou as well.

This was seen by some as Atlético’s first big test, but I disagree with that assessment. They started the season out with a draw against Levante at the Ciutat de Valencia, a fixture that they lost 2-0 in April, and they’ve also beaten Real Betis and Málaga, two teams that have also looked strong this year. Perhaps most impressively, they showed Chelsea up in the European Super Cup in August. First big test? Really?

It’s sad to see them drop to three points behind Barcelona, and also sad to see Real Madrid within a couple games of overtaking them. However, one loss away against a tough opponent is unlikely to do serious damage to their UCL ambitions, especially since they’ve maintained a healthy lead on their opponents.

Valencia CF

Result: Win (Valencia 2-0 Atlético Madrid)
Change in position: 11 to 9

Losing this was far from a catastrophe for Atlético Madrid, but winning it was important for Valencia. They’ve had a poor start to the season, and even with the win, they sit 11 points behind Atlético in the table. They’ve got a lot of ground to make up, and they needed to take advantage of the opportunity, especially since they were at home.

And they did. It wasn’t pretty, but they won the game, and they probably deserved to win it, too. Soldado scored an amazing goal, and Atlético’s offense lacked teeth, in part because Valencia were largely successful in shutting Falcao down.

This is the second time Valencia have managed to string two wins together, and they have yet to win an away game in the league. They may be able to use this as a jumping off point, and if they can, it’s not a minute too soon – they have a lot of ground to make up if they want to maintain their third place finish.

The trouble they’ve had is a bit baffling, but it is worth noting that they have both a new coach and a lot of new signings. It’s possible that they’re just starting to put the pieces together. They can also take heart in the fact that Atlético, Málaga, and Levante all have yet to face Real Madrid and Barcelona and will likely drop some points when they do.

They currently sit five points off UCL qualification.

Sevilla FC

Result: Draw (Sevilla 0-0 Levante)
Change in position: None (7)

A draw against another strong team is hardly cause for alarm, even at home. However, Sevilla will likely see this as two points dropped rather than a point gained, and the narrative of the game was quite familiar.

Sevilla had 69% possession. They had 20 shots to Levante’s three. Five were on target, six were blocks, and one hit the woodwork. They had 10 corners to Levante’s two. They rarely looked threatened – the question was always whether Sevilla would manage a win, not whether they’d lose.

The trouble for Sevilla, as it usually is, was finishing. There were just a couple pieces missing from the puzzle. They need a little more creativity in the midfield and they need someone who can reliably finish chances. As it is, they’ve only  got a couple players who are real threats on goal, and even they could be more clinical about it.

This is Sevilla’s problem, and what I think has kept them from making the strong statement in Europe that Atlético Madrid and Valencia have in recent years. It’s not even that the other teams are playing especially well – Sevilla are their own worst enemy.

The result hasn’t done much to harm their chance at UCL qualification. However, the ongoing problem Sevilla have with finding the net is troubling.

They sit four points off UCL qualification.

Málaga

Result: Loss (Málaga 1-2 Rayo Vallecano)
Change in position: 3 to 5

Málaga, on the other hand, probably do have some cause for alarm.

They’ve now won just one of their last four league games. A 2-1 loss against Atlético Madrid isn’t a big deal, but just managing a draw with relegation-threatened Espanyol and losing to Rayo Vallecano (a good team, but not a great one) is indicative of a larger problem: fatigue. Málaga just don’t have the depth or the financial support that most of the other teams in contention for a UCL spot do, despite having a very rich owner, and that’s beginning to cost them.

Of course, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Málaga have looked incredible in the UCL, leading some to even include them in the discussion about potential dark horses that could pop up and win the thing. This seems overly optimistic to me, but still, the fact remains that Málaga have been quite impressive. The financial gain from doing as well in the UCL as they have will also be valuable, especially if they make the knock out rounds (which they’re well on track to doing).

It’s also worth pointing out that they remain near the top of the table in the league, despite these stumbles, and that they swooped in to take fourth toward the end of last season despite a lackluster start. Still, I can’t help but feel like going out of the CDR early would be good for them – three competitions might just be too much.

They’re currently in fifth place and a point off of UCL qualification.

Levante

Result: Draw (Sevilla 0-0 Levante)
Change in position: None (6)

Sevilla probably feel like they lost two points, but Levante will certainly look at this result as a point gained. Sevilla beat Real Madrid and tragically lost in extra time to Barcelona at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán earlier this season, and while they are a bit inconsistent, they’re still a force to be reckoned with, especially at home.

However, Levante gritted their teeth and got on with it. If you can say one thing for them, it’s that they don’t back down and are not easily intimidated. Juanfran, their LB, went down halfway through the first half when a shot from Medel hit him in the head, and he appeared to lose consciousness for a moment. Five minutes later he was back on the field.

That was a pretty good metaphor for how the game as a whole went. Sevilla pressed. Levante dug their heels in. Sevilla started to take wild shots. Levante dealt with them. Sevilla’s defense pushed up. Levante tried to counter, and nothing came of it.

Levante will be probably be quite happy with the result, and they’ve remained in good shape as far as a potential UCL qualification goes. They’re just two points off of it, and they’ve already played the other contenders and gotten a result against everyone but Málaga.

Not bad. We’ll see what happens when Real Madrid visit next weekend.

Round Up

So far, Atlético are still looking well on track to qualify. The other spot is up for grabs, since all the other teams have clear strengths but also clear weaknesses.

Looking Ahead

Next round includes some more interesting match ups for our UCL contenders.

Atlético Madrid v. Getafe

You have to expect Atlético to beat Getafe, especially at home. Getafe got a slow start to the season, but they haven’t been half bad lately, winning three of their last five games. Atlético should still be able to beat them.

Valladolid v. Valencia

As a Valencia fan, I really wish this wasn’t the next fixture. I wish Los Che were going away to Mallorca or something – you know, someone they could easily beat, even away. They could play a game that would make fans on the east coast of the US happy that they got up at 6am to watch. Just for example.

No, in all seriousness, this could be an issue in their using the win against Atlético as a springboard to start doing all away. Valladolid have probably been the best of the promoted sides, and they’re currently tied with Valencia on points and ahead on goal differential. They also don’t have a midweek game. This will be tough, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Valencia lose.

Athletic Bilbao v. Sevilla

Athletic are a shadow of the team they were last season, probably in a large part because all of the problems behind the scenes at the club. They did beat Granada this week, but while they were the better team in the first half, Granada turned up in the second half and were very unlucky to lose – and, it must be said, Granada are also in 19th place, having gotten just 8 points all season.

However, Athletic do still have a lot of talent, and it’s certainly possible for them to manage an upset, especially at home.

Málaga v. Real Sociedad

This is tricky, since Málaga are coming off a loss at home and have to travel to Milan midweek for their fourth of six UCL group stage games, which could prove tiring.

However, Sociedad’s form has  been awful lately. They’ve lost four of their last five games, including the midweek CDR match against Córdoba (who play in the second division) and this weekend at home to Espanyol, who have only won two matches all season.

I expect Málaga to get at least a point here.

Levante v. Real Madrid

Well, this is also tricky. Levante beat Real Madrid in this fixture last year, much to the shock of everyone, everywhere, and they went on to have the best season in their history. They’re also in good form, and Real Madrid have a tough game against Dortmund coming up. On the other hand, Madrid will have more time to recover, since Levante play the Dutch team Twente away on Thursday in Europa.

Anything could happen here. Madrid could win 5-0. It could end in a draw. Levante could win it. The only thing that would surprise me is a lot of goals – Levante tend to edge the opponent out by a goal or two, not score a lot (though they did put three past Twente and Granada a few weeks ago).

Here ends the round 10 recap. Was it too long? I can make it shorter next time, if consensus is that it dragged. Thanks for reading!

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