La Liga is currently regarded by many as a two horse race, and rightly so. Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly the two strongest squads in Europe at the moment (they’re so strong that they must leave world-class players on the bench in every game) and there’s no way the other teams in La Liga can keep up with them over a 38-game league.  Barcelona were blessed with an exceptional crop of La Masia graduates, around whom they built one of the greatest teams of all-time, and Real Madrid had to counter that through the transfer market. This situation contributed decisively to the current duopoly at the top of La Liga. In the past two seasons, third place team Valencia CF ended 25 and 21 points behind Real Madrid – a situation almost certain to be repeated this season.

But even if no other club can really challenge Barcelona and Madrid over 38 games, there are several other top quality teams in La Liga. This piece will provide some  general insight on the clubs that are  most likely to compete for Champions League/Europa League spots next season: Atlético Madrid, Sevilla CFAthletic BilbaoMalaga CFVillareal CF and Valencia CF.

Atlético Madrid

 

Atlético Madrid have always managed to at least qualify to Europe (and even to the Champions League on some occasions) over the past few seasons, but they lost two of their best players this summer: David De Gea and their mercurial star Sergio Aguero.

Kun would surely be missed!

They have the highly-rated Sergio Asenjo to replace De Gea, and have made some very good signings in Arda Turan, Adrian Lopez, Silvio and Miranda, but they are likely to struggle without Kun Aguero. Anyone who has been watching Atlético over the past few years knows that Sergio Aguero was by far the club’s best player and one of the best players in the league.  His dribbling, pace, creativity and guaranteed 20+ goals per season will be sorely missed by Atlético.

New manager Gregorio Manzano will have his work cut out; it won’t be easy to take an Atlético side without Aguero to a European spot.  Los colchoneros need to splash the cash they’ve acquired from sales this summer on an adequate replacement for Aguero. Adrian was a good  signing, but that’s not enough to replace Aguero. With Kun gone and Forlán past his prime, their attacking line looks too thin; they urgently need reinforcements if they wish to battle for the top spots.

 

Sevilla CF

Just a few years ago, Sevilla CF were one of the top clubs in Europe, winning back to back UEFA Cups and seriously challenging Real Madrid and Barcelona in the league. But those days are gone now, with their best players from back then either past their prime (Kanouté, Luis Fabiano) or sold to Barcelona and Real Madrid (Seydou Keita, Daniel Alves and Sergio Ramos).

That said, Sevilla remain a very good side and they should at least challenge for a top-4 finish, although top 6 looks like a much more realistic expectation. This summer, Sevilla signed Bosnia-Herzegovnian defender Emir Spahic from Montpellier, defender Coke from Rayo Vallecano,  ex-Getafe forward Manu del Moral, Uruguayan defender Martin Caceres from Barcelona and German midfielder Piotr Trochowski on a free transfer from Hamburger – all solid players who will improve the squad.

Having managed to retain their key players, Sevilla have everything to be one of the top sides in this season’s La Liga under new manager Marcelino Toral.

 

Athletic Bilbao


Athletic Bilbao are one of the most peculiar clubs in the world. They keep sticking to their philosophy of having only Basque players in their ranks and remarkably, they remain the only club other than Barcelona and Real Madrid never to have been relegated.

The San Mamés is one of the toughest grounds in the league; even Barcelona and Real Madrid usually struggling to win there.

With Marcelo Bielsa at the helm, Bilbao will be a different proposition altogether!

The club has managed to gather a very competitive crop of Basque players over the past few years, which is enough to qualify to Europe. This year with the charismatic Marcelo Bielsa at the helm and the addition of the super-talented Ander Herrera (one of the best players in the recent Under 21 European Championships), they definitely have an outside chance of finishing in the top-4. Key players like Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez remain at the club, and the addition of Herrera might just take them to the next level.

 

Malaga CF


Malaga CF have been by far the most active club in the summer market. Their new rich owners are determined to make Malaga a force to be reckoned with and they’ve been showing their intent pretty clearly.  This is a long term project, and the team isn’t ready to compete at the very top yet, but they’re certainly a much improved side.

So far this summer, they have signed Santi Cazorla, Isco, Sergio Sanchez, Joaquin, Jeremy Toulalan, Joris Mathijsen, Nacho Monreal, Ruud van Nistelrooy  and Diego Buonanotte. These aren’t exactly galatico signings (maybe Van Nistelrooy, but he is 34), but they show the intent of building a great side.

Under a quality manager like Manuel Pellegrini, Malaga should be a pretty good team this season; they might take some time to gel, but when they do, they’ll be one of the most dangerous teams in the league.

There seems to be little doubt that Malaga will be in the Champions League at some point, but for the first year of this project a Europa League spot would already be excellent. That said, with the players they’ve signed (plus some possible new top quality additions), Malaga can dream of a top-4 finish.

 

Villareal CF


Villareal CF were fourth last season and they should be considered favorites to at least retain that position. However, they’ll be a lot more challenged this coming season, since, as we’ve already seen, the teams immediately below them have strengthened.

They might have sold Santi Cazorla (for 25 million) to Malaga, but they managed to retain Giuseppe Rossi, their best player, and Nilmar, their other star striker. So far, they’ve only signed Zapata and Camuñas, but they’ve seen some very promising young players emerge from their excellent youth academy (like Mario Gaspar and Mateo Musacchio), and they’re still active in the market.

For now, their squad is pretty much at the same level as it was last year. If they don’t make any further additions, at least on paper they’ll have their work cut out to remain in the top 4. Last year, Villareal’s main problem was the lack of depth in their squad, and that doesn’t seem to have been addressed during the summer. At their best (when their players are all fully-fit), Villareal can even give Barcelona a run for their money, as they did last season at Camp Nou in one of the best matches of the 2010-11 football season. Their possession-based style of football makes Villareal one of the best teams to watch in La Liga.

 

Valencia CF


Finally, we have Valencia CF, who are clearly the “best of the rest”. Valencia were third in the past two seasons and it’d frankly be a surprise if they didn’t repeat the feat.  They kept their manager, Unay Emery, and have a much stronger squad than last term. In Diego Alves, they have signed a top quality goalkeeper, something they didn’t have last season. They also signed ex-Lille defender Adil Rami, in addition to Dani Parejo and Sergio Canales – two additions that will make Valencia’s midfield a lot stronger. Finally, they have also roped in Pablo Piatti, who was once touted as the new Messi. While that was an exaggeration, Piatti is undoubtedly a fantastic player, who will finally have the chance to showcase his ability in a top team.

If they manage to hold on to Juan Mata, Valencia have every chance of closing the gap (even if slightly) to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the league and having a deep run in the Champions League, as their current squad has the quality and depth to beat anyone. Even if Mata does leave the club, it’d still be a surprise if Valencia didn’t manage to be third in the league again.

 

Conclusion

 

The title race in La Liga might be a bit monotonous, with Barcelona and Real Madrid in a league of their own. But the race for Champions League/Europa League spots promises to be fiercer than ever. The only thing that seems more or less guaranteed is that Valencia will occupy one of the Champions League spots. Then, we have five teams (plus any potential surprise packages) battling it out for one Champions League and two Europa League spots.  The emergence of Malaga CF will only make the fight for Europe even more competitive and exciting.

Regardless of the general perception, there’s a lot of quality in La Liga outside the big two. The race for European places promises to be a lot more exciting than Barcelona and Real Madrid’s title race this coming season!