A two-horse race for fourth

With two match days remaining there is not much up for grabs at the top end of Spain’s Primera Division. Barcelona, though only officially champions as of last week, ran away with title long ago. Real Madrid were inevitably going to finish a distant second and Atletico Madrid – in keeping with recent trends – will finish a good distance further behind the ‘big two´ in third.

Malaga, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano all still have designs to secure Europa League football next season and while they will fight it out on the field and, in Malaga’s case, in the courtroom there is the small matter of fourth place still to be decided.

The race for the final Champions League spot has, in recent weeks, whittled down to two teams – Real Sociedad and Valencia. And at present, the duel between these two UCL aspirants currently equal on points is tooth and nail.

On Saturday afternoon, Valencia continued their winning streak with a gritty display away to Getafe. A few hours later and with the added pressure of knowing Los Che had won, Real Sociedad defeated Sevilla at the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan.

Speaking after the match, Valencia boss Ernesto Valverde acknowledged his side’s struggles at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez: “It was a very complicated and difficult game for us. We did not kill it off in the second half when we had the chance.”

The visitors certainly could and perhaps should have ‘killed it off’ in the second period. Despite playing on the back foot as Getafe searched for a goal to cancel out Jeremy Mathieu’s splendid first-half opener, Valencia were extremely dangerous on the counter-attack and conjured up a hatful of chances – if only Roberto Soldado, Ever Banega and Sofiane Feghouli had not managed to squander them all.

Ultimately, Mathieu´s solitary strike proved enough and while it may not have been the prettiest, Valencia will not care. For a club in the midst of financial crisis with debts amounting to a staggering €360m and with a consortium of bankers and local government officials effectively calling the shots from the top, it is imperative that the team return to the Champions League next season. If they fail, the economic cost will cast a shadow over the club’s future and, in addition, its best players. So whether by hook or crook, the only thing that matters now are results.

And, results have been encouraging. Valencia are the most in-form team in the Primera Division, having now won three in a row, scoring nine goals without conceding one in the process. In the space of less than a month, they have wiped out the five-point gap between themselves and fourth spot.

While it would be near tragic to see Valencia – the third-best side in La Liga for the two last seasons – fall into yet more financial chaos should they fail, at the same time one cannot begrudge Real Sociedad if they were to pip Los Che in the race for European Cup football. 

La Real have played excellent, effective and entertaining football all season long. And, not only has their football been pleasing on the eye, but, surprisingly for such a young side they have also displayed real nerve and temerity when the pressure has been on. Saturday night was no different.

Having dropped down to fifth place temporarily and having gone down after just 10 minutes to an Ivan Rakitic-headed goal, the Erreala players could have let their heads drop. But, they did not. They fought back and did so quickly as just 15 minutes later were they in the lead and that was how it stayed.

Despite winning, the Basque side will be kicking themselves over how they let Valencia back in the race for fourth at all. Not one month ago, Philippe Montanier´s men brushed aside the Valencianistas with a convincing 4-2 victory at the Anoeta. Many saw this win as decisive, but, not Montanier who prophetically cautioned: “It is a good lead but it is not definitive.”

And so it has shown. A loss to Getafe followed by a draw to Granada has seen their advantage disappear and now it is all to play for once more. Real Sociedad do, however, hold a slight advantage – their two wins over Valencia this season has given them a far superior head to head record, which would count were the teams to end the campaign equal on points. And, this may just prove pivotal in a couple of weeks, both in regards to who will claim fourth and the immediate future of the two clubs, particularly that of cash-strapped Valencia.

Meanwhile, on a rain-soaked evening in the Catalan capital, Barcelona recorded a fairly straightforward win over Real Valladolid. They may already be champions, but, the Blaugrana still have one final objective this season – to equal Real Madrid’s record points haul of 100 points of last year.

And, Tito Vilanova’s side look odds on to do so, even without Lionel Messi. The Argentine’s absence was not felt at the Camp Nou as a Pedro goal and a Marc Valiente own-goal was enough for the hosts to come away with all the spoils. After the match, the wet weather failed to dampen the party atmosphere as Barcelona finally got to show off their latest League triumph in front of their own fans.