Betis lead the fourth place chase

The usual jibe of there being two Leagues in Spain – one between Barcelona and Real Madrid  and the other between the rest – has taken a new twist after one half of an eventful and surprising Spanish season.

Indeed, instead of two Leagues, there are three. The top one in which a history-making Barca are the sole proprietors, a second in which Atletico and Madrid will battle it out to be top dog in the capital and finally, the one which will probably provide the most excitement for the second part of the campaign, the all-important race for the fourth place.

This weekend saw three different sides hold that position over three days. It began in the hands of Malaga looking to replicate their fourth-placed finish of last season which has led to such a memorable Champions League run this, was briefly taken by Rayo Vallecano – if you take into account their better head-to-head record rather than goal difference over Malaga and Betis – after they secured a stunning fourth straight victory by winning 2-1 against Athletic Bilbao at San Mames and finished with Betis three points clear of the pack after another Ruben Castro inspired performance handed them a 2-0 win over Levante.

Valencia, meanwhile, were continuing their upward curve under Ernesto Valverde thanks to two Roberto Soldado goals against a hopeless Sevilla, to leave five teams from fourth to eighth separated by just four points.

However, with Malaga currently banned from competing in European competition even if they qualify next season and Rayo and Levante unlikely to be able to keep the pace over 38 games, the Champions League riches could appropriately come down to a race between Betis and Valencia. It was a clash between the two just over a year ago that kick-started a major turnaround in Betis’ fortunes and saved them from axing a very capable Coach.

Last December after a run of 10 games without a win, heading into stoppage time Betis were trailing again 1-0 to Los Che and Pepe Mel was on the brink of the sack. A remarkable four minutes later and two goals from Castro had saved his manager’s job.

A year on and at the age of 31 the man from the Canary Isles has put himself in contention for a Spanish call-up by joining Soldado and Aritz Aduriz as the joint highest scoring Spaniard in the League.

“Vicente Del Bosque is a great Coach, but Castro has shown what he can do,” said Mel on Sunday. “We have to congratulate them. Castro's talent defined the game,” Levante’s Juan Ignacio Martinez grudgingly agreed.

And whilst it is too early to call him great, Mel also deserves plenty of credit for how he has moulded what is overall a young and pretty inexperienced squad.

Prior to this weekend their record away from home had far outstripped their results at the Benito Villamarin where the opposition would soak up their passing game before springing into action on the counter-attack. That is how Rayo, Granada and Mallorca all came away from Seville with three points.

And so this weekend without their usual midfield metronome and enforcer in Benat and Canas respectively, Mel played it more like an away game with pace down the flanks and Castro dropped a little deeper to offer more creativity along with his obvious goalscoring threat.

Within seven minutes this move had been completely vindicated as a sweeping counter-attack saw Castro feed Joel Campbell for an easy finish. Castro then finished things off himself with a wonderful piece of skill and clinical strike early in the second-half to ensure Betis retained their 100 per cent record in 2013.

Even if they do qualify for the Champions League, keeping hold of Benat and Castro could be difficult, but as long as they don’t make the mistake of getting rid of their eccentric but bright Coach, the future remains a promising one for the green and white half of Seville.

Elsewhere, Barca made it an almost perfect first time rround the League as they displayed some sublime football in beating Malaga 3-1 to move onto 55 points from a possible 57, beating their own previous record tally of 52 from the title-winning season of 2009-10.

Atleti also had a good weekend as goals from Tiago and Radamel Falcao handed them a comfortable win over Zaragoza and restored their seven-point cushion over Real Madrid who, without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, could only muster one shot on target during their 0-0 draw with Osasuna.

At the bottom it was a good week for Espanyol who beat Celta Vigo 1-0 to move out the relegation zone and Depor also claimed another valuable point as they held on with 10 men to draw 1-1 at Real Sociedad.