El Centrocampista

THE BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD? The race for fourth may suggest otherwise

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If there were any doubts left that Real Madrid’s name would be engraved on the bottom of Spain’s la liga trophy for the 32nd time come May, they were surely dispelled when reigning champions Barcelona slumped in Pamplona on Saturday night.

Levante may have given Jose Mourinho’s side more of a battle than was expected on Sunday but there can be few people who still believe the league is now not done and dusted.

However away from the title fight (or lack of it), the real focus now switches a few places lower and the intriguing race for the remaining Champions League spots.

To be fair, the word ‘race’ may not be the most suitable word for it at the moment as it seems no side really wants to take control and force the issue.

That fact that a team who have picked up just three points from a possible 21 still sit in fourth place sort of sums up the lack of consistency shown by the teams immediately below them.

Levante, who began the season so strongly, have not won since 10 December but amazingly still cling on to the final Champions League place while Espanyol, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Malaga take it in turns to blow it when least expected.

First up this weekend were the resurgent Atletico who travelled to strugglers Racing Santander looking to continue their good form under new coach, Diego Simeone.

A win for los rojiblancos would have seen them rise to fourth in the league and lay down a marker for the other sides vying for the coveted top four finish.

Unfortunetly it was not to be as they were held to a goal less draw by the home side. To be fair to Simeone’s men however, they did dominate they game and would have won comfortably if it were not for an excellent display by Racing goalkeeper, Toño.

Simeone was obviously disappointed to only come away from el Sardinero with a solitary point, but on a positive note the team have now gone 540 minutes without conceding.

The final game of Saturday gave another of Spain’s pretenders the chance to seize the initiative, as Marcelo Bielsa took his charges to Seville to play Pepe Mel’s inconsistent Real Betis.

Athletic have been in fantastic form recently and travelled to the Benito Villamarin having lost just once in 16 domestic games, and that was to leaders Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Betis on the other hand have been a team of complete contrasts. Four straight wins at the start of the season saw them top la liga for the first time in many a moon, before they went on a dismal run that saw only one point picked up from a possible 30. They promptly won three on the bounce before heading into Saturday’s game on the back of a four-game winless run.

Which Betis would turn up for Bielsa’s men? Unfortuently for Athletic it was the Betis side that had won so much praise early in the season and the visitors were duly sent back to Bilbao empty-handed thanks to a sublime injury-time strike from Betico defender, Nelson.

You could hear the groans from the Basque Country all the way from Andalusia – the fact Osasuna had pulled-off a shock 3-2 win over Barcelona two hours before added to their misery as they now sit behind the side from Pamplona.

On that note and by way of their league position, Osasuna should also really be considered as part of the chasing pack as well now, and they could be a dark horse.

Saturday’s results meant Espanyol kicked off their Sunday lunchtime game at the Cornella-El Prat secure in the knowledge that a win against basement side Real Zaragoza would put them not only fourth, but more importunely, three points clear of the chasing pack.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side had quietly put together an impressive run of results that had seen them go unbeaten since early December, while they were up against a side who found themselves routed to the foot of la liga and a massive 13 points from safety. If ever there was a home banker, this was won.

Espanyol proceded to fluff their lines spectacularly and fell to a rather dismal 2-0 defeat to Manolo Jimenez and his men.

There was little sign of the team that had racked up so many impressive wins in recent weeks, and Pochettino’s men stuttered and stumbled their way through 90 minutes of excruciatingly poor finishing and woeful defending to give Zaragoza their first away victory since May last year and only their third win of the season.

On a weekend of poor results for the sides vying for the European places, it was the season’s real Jekyll and Hyde side, Malaga who capitalised as they performed well to defeat Mallorca 3-1 at La Rosaleda. The Islanders had actually taken an early lead before Manuel Pelligrin’s men settled to bag only their second win in ten games.

Despite huge investment in the side, Malaga have struggled of late and many were surprised they didn’t dip into the transfer market last month to add some much-needed firepower to a squad sorely lacking up front.

The inconsistencies of these sides reveals it’s own story when you look at the table. Third-placed Valencia now sit eight points ahead of Espanyol in fifth and look almost certain to again finish immediately below Spain’s ‘big two’, however their victory over Sporting Gijon on Sunday was the first time they have picked up three points in the league this year AND they are still only eight points behind Barcelona.

Read into it that what you will but it seems the only side consistenly performing is the one that sits ten points clear at the top of the pile.

Whether this means La Liga is now more competitive than it was last season who really knows, but you could argue that the fact teams cannot string any consistent run of results together for a prolonged period of time means they could lack that true quality and concentration the best clubs almost in variably have.

Time will only tell of course but the fact a team that is currently showing relegation form STILL sits in fourth place and could be representing Spain in the Champions League, speaks for itself. Doesn’t it?


  1. fcb1899

    14 February, 2012 at 17:18

    Interesting read. It has been strange this season. I have not been that impressed with Valencia recently but they still have 3rd quite easily. Levante have been rubbish for months now and are still 4th but I suppose that is down to the good start they had.

    I think Atleti under Simeone will be the strongest side and will end up in 4th spot with Athletic 5th and Espanyol 6th.

  2. brrdaar

    14 February, 2012 at 17:20

    I think Athletic Bilbao will be four. Beilsa is a ggod coach and the team are playing good but not v betis.

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