La Liga run-in: Barcelona’s nerves, Simeone’s struggles and a mini-league to qualify for Europe

0

“Now we have a five-team league left and we want to win it,” Barcelona coach Xavi said after his side’s 2-1 win over Real Mallorca at the Camp Nou last weekend. .

The win put Barca second in La Liga, albeit 15 points behind new world champions Real Madrid. The other teams in this five-team ‘mini-league‘ – Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Real Betis and Real Sociedad – are all battling for the three remaining Champions League spots for next season with four games remaining.

How this mini-league unfolds will have huge consequences for everyone involved, on and off the pitch. The difference in 2022-23 income between qualifying for the Champions League or ending up in the Europa League is at least 50 million euros. Each final La Liga position between second and fifth is worth around €7m. For Barca and Atletico, this money is essential for their future. For Sevilla it makes a huge difference, while Betis and La Real could take huge steps forward.

There’s also qualification for the Spanish Super Cup, which in theory goes to the top two in La Liga as well as Copa del Rey winners Betis and runners-up Valencia. As we know from leaked audio involving Gerard Pique and Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales, taking part in the Super Cup could be worth around €8m for Real Madrid and Barca, but much less for others. competing clubs, and the Spanish federation has yet to confirm the exact criteria to play the next tournament next January in Saudi Arabia.

The fear of missing out on next season’s Champions League was behind Barcelona’s calculated risk of investing in the likes of Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January. Their improved form until the 4-0 clasico victory at Real Madrid in March seemed to have secured a place in the top four, but then came home defeats to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano which showed that the team de Xavi is far from being back to its previous level.

the league

Position Team O L D Points GD

1

real Madrid

25

6

3

81

44

2

Barcelona

19

9

6

66

29

3

Seville

17

13

4

64

22

4

Atlético Madrid

18

7

9

61

18

5

Real Betis

17

7

ten

58

18

6

Real Sociedad

15

11

8

56

1

7

Villarreal

14

ten

ten

52

21

8

athletic club

13

12

9

51

7

The results are so important that head coach Xavi continued to choose Pique even though the veteran centre-half suffered an adductor injury. Forcing this issue now means Pique will miss the rest of the season; a blow as Barca prepare to head to fifth-placed Betis on Saturday night.

Securing the Champions League next year is key for Barcelona’s transfer activity this summer. Free transfer deals are on the cards for Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen and Milan’s Franck Kessie, while the futures of Ousmane Dembele, Frenkie de Jong, Adama Traore, Dani Alves and many other squad members remain uncertain. If Xavi’s side don’t finish in the top four, very tough decisions will have to be made this summer.

Sevilla also expected to play in the Champions League next season, but it’s far from a foregone conclusion. Julen Lopetegui’s side have been Real Madrid’s only challengers over the autumn and winter but they have only won four of their last 14 La Liga games amid clear signs of mental exhaustion and physical, and now sit in third place with 64 points.

Lopetegui’s side were whistled by frustrated Sanchez-Pizjuan fans in last week’s 1-1 draw at home to relegation-threatened Andalusian neighbors Cadiz. A growing number of fans and local pundits are wondering if their Basque manager, seen by Manchester United as their new boss earlier this year, has pushed his current side as far as he can. Three points at Villarreal on Sunday afternoon would quell those concerns, but longer term there is a relationship to settle.

“We are not playing well. In the last game against Cadiz we were pretty bad,” Sevilla president Jose Castro said during this week’s Feria de Sevilla (the Seville Fair). “But there is no debate inside the club about Lopetegui’s future. He has two years left on his contract.

Currently fourth, with 61 points, are Atletico, whose season has also seen a rather alarming drop with five points in their last four La Liga games. It’s the latest twist in a roller-coaster campaign that included four first-time defeats in a row under manager Diego Simeone in December and then five La Liga wins in February and March.

Simeone continues to rotate his line-up, trying to find the right mix. He again made five changes to the XI for last weekend’s trip to Athletic Bilbao, including bench captain Koke, and Atletico were beaten 2-0.

“I can’t tell you why it’s happening, but things aren’t working out on the pitch,” goalkeeper Jan Oblak told San Mames. “We have to find the problem and solve it. We have to make the Champions League. Otherwise, there will be problems. »


Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have work to do to secure Champions League qualification (Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Sunday’s home game against Real Madrid therefore comes at a crucial time. Atletico hope Madrid are still hungover after winning the league title and reaching the Champions League final, so they can end a run of zero wins and just two goals in their eight last “derbis”. Another loss would really hurt the mood at the Wanda Metropolitano as the season nears its peak.

Failing to make the top four for the first time in El Cholo’s decade would force Atletico to sell some important players this summer. Timing would also be problematic as Atletico’s hierarchy search for a new stadium sponsor, with the deal with Chinese group Wanda set to come to an end soon.

Betis (fifth on 58 points) and Real Sociedad (sixth on 56) should really be underdogs to finish in the top four, but the fixture lists and form lines of all the teams involved give them a chance. Manuel Pellegrini’s side would be back in the mix if they could beat Barca at home on Saturday night, and they won the reverse game 1-0 at Camp Nou in December.

Sociedad’s season has been remarkable. They have amassed 56 points while scoring just 33 goals in 34 games so far, making them the most ‘efficient’ team in La Liga history (ahead of Friday night’s game against the bottom side Levante). If the Basques are still in the game last weekend, their home game against Atletico could be a cracker.

Other key fixtures in the run-in include Sevilla visiting Atletico and Villarreal v La Real on the penultimate weekend of the season. Unai Emery’s side currently sit in seventh place, in the Europa Conference League spot, just a point clear of an Athletic Bilbao side who are in fine form at the right time.

Alexander Isak, Real Sociedad

Real Sociedad are currently on track to secure Europa League qualification – with a +1 goal difference (Photo: Ander Gillenea/AFP via Getty Images)

Down below, Levante and Alaves both look doomed, with four teams then battling to avoid the final relegation spot. Saturday’s clash between United States-owned Real Mallorca and China-owned Granada is a six-pointer of global proportions.

So, while Madrid already have the title sewn up, there is a lot to play for in the last four rounds of matches, especially in the European mini-league where things are likely to get very nervous, and more surprises and turnovers. seem likely.

“I believe that’s what Cholo Simeone said,” Xavi said last weekend. “The teams that make the Champions League will be those that show the most intensity, mentality, faith and desire.”

(Top photos: Getty Images)

Share.

Comments are closed.