Three teams are locked in battle for third and fourth in La Liga. We analyze their performances in gameweek 20 and who now has the advantage.
Defending champions Atletico Madrid are in pole position in the battle for the two remaining Champions League spots as Real Madrid and Barcelona look to fight it out for the top two positions in La Liga. Snapping at their heels are Valencia and Sevilla, two teams with a bit of recent history spicing things up at the top of the table. Even before they commenced battle in their La Liga game on 26th January, the match was billed to be more than just an ordinary battle for the Champions League spots.
Sevilla’s manager Unai Emery planned to plot the downfall of the team he once managed, in their own backyard. Emery managed Valencia from 2008-2012 and despite leading them to two third place finishes and bringing Champions League football back to the Mestalla – in spite of losing David Villa and David Silva in the summer of 2010 – never endeared himself to the Los Che ultras. To rub salt in their wounds, it was Sevilla’s last gasp goal, scored by Stephane Mbia that eliminated Valencia from the 2013-14 Europa League at the semi final stage. Sevilla under Emery went on to beat Benfica in the final as the Guttmann curse prevailed.
Tensions were undoubtedly high as Emery took his Sevilla side, who a game in hand over Valencia and two over Atletico Madrid, to the Mestalla, his former stomping ground. With the game in hand advantage, Sevilla came into the game on the back of claiming 16 out of a possible 18 points in their last six games, five of them without conceding a goal. Valencia too came into the game in impressive form, winning nine of their last eleven games. And the home team drew first blood as Alvaro Negredo went down theatrically in the box and captain Dani Parejo dispatched the spot kick for Valencia.
If the first goal lacked in fluidity of build-up, the second delivered just that – Parejo delightfully finishing off a neat Valencia move into the bottom far corner of the goal. Carlos Bacca scored from the penalty spot in spite of Valencia keeper Diego Alves’s clever antics, although he did psyche out the striker when a second penalty was awarded to Sevilla and Bacca failed to score from it. Javi Fuego finished off the game as he scored for Valencia as Sevilla started to commit men forward in search of their equalizer.
Although this game has not decided much in terms of the teams finishing in the Champions League spots, it has made it more interesting. Had Sevilla emerged victorious, they would have increased the distance between themselves in fourth and Valencia in fifth to four points, while being two points off defending champions Atletico Madrid in third, with a game in hand. Valencia meanwhile would have had Villarreal breathing down their neck and engaging them in a battle for the Europa League spots.
Instead Valencia now have overtaken Sevilla and the three way battle for the Champions League spots continues. Diego Simeone must have heaved a sigh of relief as the final whistle blew at the Mestalla as it means their stronghold on third place is maintained while he tries to bring his Atletico Madrid side to catch up with Barcelona. Atletico saw off Rayo Vallecano thanks to two Antoine Griezmann goals and now travel to Eibar at the weekend, a team that has surprised many this season and lies 8th in the league (although that did not stop David Moyes’s Real Sociedad from beating them at home).
Sevilla and Valencia also face tricky opponents in Espanyol and Malaga respectively, although Sevilla is the only team out of the three vying for the Champions League spots playing at home this weekend. It looks to be a close battle as the three clubs conspire to keep or bring Europe’s elite competition to their fans next season. This game-week might not have settled anything, but Valencia’s win and Sevilla’s loss has kept the race wide open.