With no hint of a title race, much of the focus at the top end of LaLiga over the remainder of the 2022/23 season will be on the battle for 4th and a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League. The implosion of Sevilla, who have finished 4th in each of the previous three years, leaves us with what looks to be a tight three-horse race between Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Real Betis for a place at Europe’s top table next term.
As It Stands (after 28 Games)
Six points separate Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Real Betis heading into matchday 29 and things could bunch up further should La Real drop points in the Basque derby in Bilbao this weekend. Athletic Club themselves are only five points further back on Real Betis, but realistically they appear to be only fighting for a Europa or Conference League position.
In-form Atletico Madrid meanwhile now look all but guaranteed a top four finish after their vast improvement in 2023 and will have their sights set on pipping city rivals Real Madrid to 2nd. The race for 4th though, looks like it could go to the wire.
Can La Real recover from their latest mid-season slump?
Real Sociedad are in pole position, as they have been for most of the season, to join the “big three” as Spain’s 2023/24 Champions League representatives. If they can make it, it’d mark a first UCL appearance in a decade for the Basque side following a poor group stage exit in the 2013/14 season which itself came exactly a decade after their only previous participation in the competition during the Champions League era – a more successful run to the Last 16 in 2003/04.
To qualify though, Real Sociedad are going to need to quickly move on from a mid-season slump that has become something of a recurring theme in recent years. They’d won just 1 of 10 matches in all competitions heading into their recent home game against rock bottom Elche. They won that match 2-0, as was the case in their most recent outing in Donostia against Getafe, however there was a damaging loss against top four rivals Villarreal sandwiched in between that.
With some tough fixtures ahead, Imanol is going to need to find a way to get his side playing as well as they were early on this term. In theory, that shouldn’t be impossible with far fewer injuries now to contend with than was the case in the autumn, while there are no more cup distractions after a disappointing Europa League exit against Roma.
Form has been lost on both an individual and collective basis though. The best example of that is Brais Mendez who has 7 goals and 3 assists this season in LaLiga, all of which came before the turn of the year.
The return from long-term injury of Mikel Oyarzabal has also proved something of a dilemma for Imanol. The 25 year old is arguably Real Sociedad’s best player, but hasn’t been able to hit the ground running after such a long absence which saw Take Kubo and Alexander Sorloth form an unlikely but largely successful forward partnership. Oyarzabal scored his first goal in 10 appearances for club and country last time out against Getafe and his form may be a key factor in determining whether La Real can finish the job and clinch Champions League qualification.
Are streaky Villarreal finally blossoming under Quique Setien?
If Real Sociedad’s recent struggles are a little hard to explain, Villarreal’s streaky runs of form since appointing Quique Setien are even harder to fathom. A disastrous start for the former Barcelona boss had some Villarreal fans calling for his head as early as his fourth game in charge – a 2-0 home defeat against Mallorca.
The Yellow Submarine responded with six straight wins in all competitions though and while three did come against lower league opposition in the Copa del Rey, a 2-1 home win over Real Madrid in early January offered the clearest indication yet that things were heading in the right direction.
Four straight league defeats in January and February piled the pressure back on Setien once more and appeared to crush any top four aspirations, only for his team to respond with five wins out of six in LaLiga with Villarreal climbing into serious Champions League contention again.
Recent history perhaps teaches us that we shouldn’t now automatically assume that everything will stay rosy at the Ceramica but the signs are certainly positive. Youngsters Alex Baena and Ramon Terrats have slotted nicely into the midfield either side of veteran Dani Parejo and they appear to have found a slightly more balanced approach to Setien’s possession heavy style of football than we saw during the early weeks of his reign.
Most impressively of all, they’ve even found a way of playing and scoring goals without the injury-prone Gerard Moreno, such a pivotal figure in all of the club’s success in recent years. The selection of Giovani Lo Celso as a false nine in last weekend’s 3-2 win at the Santiago Bernabeu proved an inspired move but there was little question about who the star of the show was as a spectacular performance from Samu Chukwueze fired Villarreal to victory. If the Nigerian can maintain his current form, the Yellow Submarine will cause problems for whoever they meet between now and the end of the season.
Ill discipline continues to thwart Betis’ UCL hopes
Real Betis have 45 points from 28 games but it should be plenty more than that with repeated incidents of ill-discipline continuing to hamper them. After being reduced to nine men in their surprise home defeat to Cadiz, Betis are now sitting on 12 red cards for the season in LaLiga, more than any other club in Europe’s big five leagues.
There have been plenty of early reds too which have quickly forced Manuel Pellegrini into changes and the Chilean must be privately seething at some of the needless sending offs with centre-back Luiz Felipe alone sitting on three red cards while Sergio Canales is facing another ban after a needless sending off last weekend.
Spanish referees have been exceptionally keen to get their cards out this season, but even so Betis cannot afford many further incidents if they want to stay in the race for a top four finish. They are not even a particularly physical side with their average of 11.1 fouls per game, actually the second lowest figure in LaLiga this term with only Real Madrid committing fewer.
Despite those issues, not to mention a season-ending injury to Nabil Fekir and the January departure of influential full-back Alex Moreno, Betis have still been performing quite well and creating chances, but the finishing touch has been eluding them of late. Indeed, it’s just 3 goals in 7 matches in all competitions for the Seville club and they appear outsiders in the race for 4th place, although are well situated to qualify for Europe for a third season in a row, something the club has never previously managed to do.
Who has the best run-in?
|Athletic Club (A)
|Real Valladolid (H)
|Rayo Vallecano (H)
|Real Betis (A)
|Real Sociedad (H)
|Celta Vigo (H)
|Real Madrid (H)
|Athletic Club (A)
|Athletic Club (H)
|Rayo Vallecano (H)
|Atletico Madrid (A)
|Rayo Vallecano (A)
|Atletico Madrid (H)
It seems fairly clear from the remaining fixtures, that Villarreal are the side with the best run-in of the three contenders. Six of their remaining ten matches are at the recently renovated Estadio Ceramica and 9th placed Rayo Vallecano are their highest ranked opponents on the road. Their only remaining match against current top six opposition sees them face Atletico Madrid on the final weekend, by which time Los Rojiblancos should have already sealed Champions League qualification themselves.
Real Sociedad by comparison have to play four of the top six and all of their remaining away games are against current top half opposition. Judging by their tough schedule, they may need all of the four point advantage they currently have on Villarreal. However much does depend on the exact timing of fixtures and it seems probable that many of their late season opponents won’t have much to play for, with the possible exception of relegation-threatened Almeria who visit the Reale Arena on matchday 36.
As for Real Betis, they have two of the current top six still to play and much may hinge on the outcome of their home game against Real Sociedad on matchday 31. That’s the only remaining fixture between the three primary contenders for 4th, although interestingly all three sides do still have to face 7th placed Athletic Club who will be hoping to propel themselves into the mix by winning those fixtures.
We’re likely to get plenty of twists and turns between now and early June and there’s every chance it’ll go to the final weekend when all three sides have home games.