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 a half-season round-up.
Note: This is the fourth post in a series. The first post detailing the teams I think are the most likely contenders can be found here.
Hey, guys – long time no see! Sorry about that – I’ve been busy with a new job, grad school applications, and sleeping too much in hopes of avoiding the flu. (I seem to have succumbed to it anyway, unfortunately.)
Anyway. Enough about me. I know nobody cares. Onto the season-so-far!
I considered including Betis when I first started this series but ended up deciding not to, because I assumed they’d drop off and just manage Europa. At this rate, it’s looking like I really ought to include them.
Points: 44 (14W – 2 D – 3 L)
Position: 2 (Champions League)
Recent league form: W-L-W-D-W
I don’t think it’s quite a Cinderella story when you’ve won two trophies in the last year, but maintaining second for half of the season in a two-horse race when you’re not one of the horses is pretty impressive. Part of it is that Real Madrid have been really poor, but Atlético deserve a lot of credit. If they manage to keep this up in the second half of the season – unlikely but possible – they’ll finish with about 88 points. That’s miles better than anyone outside of the big two has managed to do, ever (though Atlético came close in 1995-96, which is the last time they managed to win the league), and just a few points off of what Barcelona managed last year.
I spent the first half of the season doubting Atléti’s ability to hold on. I think I’m going to have to eat my words. They’ve been in second since round 3, are still perfect at home, and maintain a 7-point lead on Real Madrid. They’re a full 10 ahead of Betis. Their only three league losses have been to Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Valencia.
Unless something disastrous happens, Atlético are definitely making the Champions League next year, and it’s looking like they might do it by taking second.
Points: 30 (9W – 3D – 7L)
Recent league form: W-L-W-W-W
Valencia started the season off vey poorly, at one point dipping down to 17th in the table and struggling to cement a place in the top ten. In recent weeks, however, they’ve improved dramatically, and are now technically sitting in a Europa spot on GD (assuming that Málaga do not get their ban overturned and/or that both CDR finalists qualify for Europe through the league).
The first few rounds of this second half of the season will be crucial, though – they only got two points of a possible nine against Real Madrid-Deportivo-Barcelona the first time around, though they’ll be at home for the big two this time. Given the regularity with which teams, particularly some of their toughest competition for Europe, have been getting wins against Madrid away, it’s vital for them to keep up by doing the same. If they don’t manage to get at least 5 or 6 points from the next three games, they could find themselves slipping again.
The Champions League isn’t looking like the lost cause it was, though – they’re just four points off it right now.
Points: 22 (6W – 4D – 9L)
Recent league form: L-L-W-L-D
I’m thinking that for the second half of the season, I’m going to have to replace Sevilla with their neighbors Real Betis.
They have matches where they’re absolutely brilliant – their wins against Real Madrid and Real Betis were both two of the most impressive showings from any team this season. However, they also have a lot of matches where they’re subpar, or where they control the game but fail to actually finish their chances. Their squad is better than mid-table, yet there they sit.
They have appointed Unai Emery as their new manager, and if anyone can pull them together, he can. Still, while Europa isn’t out of reach, I don’t think they can possibly make up enough ground to catch up with the other contenders – they’re just not dropping enough points.
Points: 31 (9W – 4D – 6L)
Position: 5 (Europa League)
Recent league form: W-W-W-L-L
Right now, Málaga are banned from participating in Europe for a season if they qualify in the next four. They are appealing the ban, but if they don’t succeed, there won’t really be any point in discussing their European aspirations further. That said, they do have a decent case, so until the ban is upheld, I’ll continue to treat them as contenders.
I will admit it: I was wrong about Málaga. I assumed they’d fall off as the season wore on, because they wouldn’t have the depth to continue on. I still think that will happen eventually, especially if they move on in the Copa del Rey, but they’ve been surprising. The major wrench will be if the ban isn’t overturned – I’m not sure how motivated they’ll be to keep playing like this if they can’t make Europe – but if it is, I think they’re favorites to get into Europa and could definitely pull of Champions League.
Málaga also have a huge trump card in their favor: the Spanish league, as most of you know, uses head-to-head rather than GD as the tiebreaker if teams are tied on points at the end of the season. Málaga got definitive results against their competitors for Europe in the first half of the season: 4-0 against Valencia and Betis, and 3-1 against Levante. That’ll be a lot to overturn. The win against Real Madrid could also be highly significant (more on that in another entry).
Points: 30 (9W – 3D – 7L)
Recent league form: W-W-L-W-L
The Cinderella story of last season has yet to fade away.
They don’t play especially attractive football, but knowing their circumstances, it’s tough not to root for them. At this point, while they’re still the underdogs, nobody’s stupid enough not to take them seriously, especially when Levante are at home – they’ve got six wins, a draw, and two losses at the Estadio Ciudad de Valencia, and the points they dropped were to Atlético, Real Madrid, and Barcelona.
Will Levante get into the Champions League? Realistically, I don’t think so, but you can never rule them out.
Points: 34 (11W – 1D – 7L)
Position: 4 (Champions League)
Recent league form: L-W-L-W-W
Betis have been a pleasant surprise this season. They’ve been very solid, and there are a few reasons to think that The Other Team from Sevilla are going to pull it out and make the Champions League this season.
First, they’ve been all-or-nothing. Whether it’s a fight for Europe or a fight against relegation, it’s not the losses that kill you, it’s the draws. I’m not saying that draws are bad things, but if you’re all-or-nothing and don’t get many draws, it does start to add up. 7 draws will get you 7 points. 3 wins, a draw, and 3 losses will get you 10. Over the course of the season, it adds up.
Second, most of their dropped points have been in games where it’s acceptable to drop points. They have the occasional stumble where they shouldn’t – the away draw to Osasuna and the home losses to Mallorca and Granada, for example – but by and large, they’re getting it done against teams they should be getting it done against and dropping their points to the likes of Atlético, Málaga, or Barcelona.
Third, they’ve proved themselves capable of getting up after a loss and carrying on. There aren’t major dips in form – they stumble in a game or two, and then get up and keep going.
They’ve really been excellent this season, and are definitely favorites to at least make Europa.
Right now, Atlético look pretty secure in the Champions League spot, and I think that Valencia will ultimately join them after the huge scare earlier in the season.
However, Real Madrid have been doing poorly enough that it’s not inconceivable that they fail to make the Champions League next year. I don’t think it’s likely that they won’t, but it is possible. I’m going to go out on a huge limb and say that they won’t, and that the four Liga representatives in the CL next season will be Barcelona, Atlético, Valencia, and Betis.
More on this in the next entry.