PAMPLONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 11: Thiago Alcantara of FC Barcelona (L) duels for a high ball with Sergio Fernandez of CA Osasuna during the La Liga match between CA Osasuna and FC Barcelona at the Reyno de Navarra Stadium on February 11, 2012 in Pamplona, Spain. CA Osasuna won 3-2.(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Six teams are currently separated by just two points in La Liga's incredible race for the final Champions League place.
La Liga, for quite some time, has been a two-team league. Valencia, Villarreal and others have mounted decent challenges to the big two and assembled squads that were obviously worthy of the Champions League, but the gap between the big two and the rest of the league appears to be growing. Even though Real Madrid have a 10-point gap on Barcelona, the Cules have an even larger 16-point gap on fourth place.
Thanks to the success of those two teams in the UEFA Champions League, as well as the UEFA Cup/Europa League triumphs of Valencia, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, La Liga is one of the two top leagues in the world in terms of the UEFA Coefficient. Their gap on fourth-placed Italy is large, and they will hold onto their three automatic Champions League places-plus-one playoff spot for the foreseeable future, even though there are only two teams in the league with the quality to win the competition.
Valencia currently sit in third place, and they're a worthy top-three side. They have made things hard for Real Madrid and Barcelona when they have played, they have a very good goal differential of plus-13, and they nearly qualified for the knockout stages of Champions League this year. After them, however, the table is an absolute mess.
The gap between fourth-placed Levante and Racing Santander, the team in the first relegation place in the league, is a mere nine points. Sevilla -- a team who sacked their manager recently and sit in a disastrous 12th place -- are just six points out of Champions League. All of the teams placed fourth-through-ninth are within two points of each other, and at this point in the season, it's impossible to say that Levante and Osasuna are getting by on luck.
As of Round 22, the teams sitting in fourth-ninth have about equal chances of finishing in fourth place. the likes of Rayo Vallecano, Sevilla and Villarreal aren't out of it, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to leapfrog so many teams.
What do each of the teams have going for them? Here's the best reason or reasons why each team can clinch fourth place.
Levante (4th place, 32 points) - Destiny?
There is no good reason why Levante should finish in the top four, but there's also no reason why they should have been here in the first place. And yet, here they are, sitting in the top four after Round 22, just like they have after every single round of the tournament. They didn't lose until October 30, and even though their form hasn't been terrific since then, they're getting enough results to stay ahead of their competition.
Levante are the poorest team in La Liga by some distance. There are a number of Segunda teams that can offer better contracts. They broke their club record transfer fee for Felipe Caicedo for the sole purpose of instantly selling him on for double that fee. They didn't have the financial security to flip that money into new players. Their domestic television contract makes them over €100 million less than those of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
And yet, here they are. They're extremely organized, their defense is formidable, and their roster of castoffs seems to have galvanized wonderfully. Somehow, a team filled with players that no one else wanted is not only going to stay in La Liga, but likely finish in the top half. It was improbable that they would get to 32 points, period. That they got there in 22 rounds is jaw-dropping.
Espanyol (5th place, 32 points) - A great stable of young attackers
Over the last year, Espanyol has sold Jose Maria Callejon, Pablo Osvaldo and Victor Ruiz. Those players currently play for Real Madrid, Roma and Valencia. Callejon has had a very good season for Los Merengues, while the latter two players are first choice for big teams. Luis Garcia also departed for Real Zaragoza; he had 36 starts, six goals and six assists last year. Starting goalkeeper Carlos Idriss Kameni, who made over 200 appearances for the club, was cast aside for Cristian Alvarez.
Though not quite as improbably as Levante, Espanyol are surprisingly in fifth place. Their leading scorer, Sergio Garcia, has just five goals. Superstar youngster Alvaro Vasquez has actually been slightly disappointing. They do have a stable of great young talent, though, and they can push the other teams in this race if those players play together at their best.
Espanyol lost in disappointing fashion to Real Zaragoza, but they were without Vasquez and Garcia, who have just returned from injury. Along with Vladmir Weiss, Phillipe Coutinho, Verdu and Kalu Uche, they can form an extremely formidable attack if all of them can just get healthy at the same time.
Atletico Madrid (6th place, 31 points) - The Simeone Effect
Since hiring manager Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid have not lost. They actually haven't even conceded a goal, which shouldn't be terribly surprising. Atletico have a great young keeper in Thibaut Courtois, a good defense in front of him, and a great defensive manager. Simeone, a world class defensive midfielder as a player, led Racing Club to the second best defensive record in Argentina last season.
Beyond what Simeone has done with the team, Atletico also have Radamel Falcao, one of the best center forwards in the world. He's lived up to his transfer fee so far, scoring 14 goals for an incredibly average team. Adrian has six goals, but Atleti is out of scorers after that. Diego, Gabi and Arda Turan have combined to score just four times.
Atleti don't actually face one of their direct rivals again until March 21, when they host Athletic Bilbao. Depending on how the next few weeks transpire, that might be a must-win game. Between now and then, Atleti face Barcelona at home and travel to Sevilla. They'll be hard-pressed to keep a clean sheet in either match.
Malaga (7th place, 31 points) - That money had to do something
Even though their squad was assembled at a fairly hefty price, Malaga have been a bit disappointing. They apparently haven't figured out, like everyone else has, that Martin Demichelis hasn't been a quality central defender for five years. Jose Solomon Rondon, much maligned for not living up to his potential, is actually the club's leading scorer. Santi Cazorla has cooled off after his strong start, while Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joaquin are showing their age.
Still, there are positives and reasons to believe things are going to come good for Malaga. Rondon has the talent to score at any time. Jeremy Toulalan is having a consistent year. Cazorla, as well as Isco, has to turn it on sometime. Sebastian Fernandez is healthy and contributing. The talent is there, they just have to start converting that talent into goals. A team with attackers this good just simply doesn't put the ball into the net as often as it should.
Osasuna (8th place, 31 points) - They keep doing this
To most neutral observers, Osasuna are probably very boring. They defeated Barcelona in entertaining fashion on Saturday, winning 3-2, but that kind of scoreline is a rarity in Osasuna games. They have just 26 goals on the season and lead the team in draws. They don't usually play exciting football, and they don't have a lot of goal-scoring talent.
This is not an anomaly, however. Their negative-nine goal differential and lack of scoring talent suggests that they won't stay here, but they know what they're doing. They've slowly but surely improved their league position over the last three seasons as they keep getting better at what they do best -- 0-0 or 1-1 draws against superior opposition.
Osasuna finished ninth last year. They're currently in eighth doing the exact same thing. They don't need that dramatic of an improvement on their 47 points from last year to finish in fourth place; 56 points will probably be good enough for fourth.
Athletic Bilbao (9th place, 30 points) - Bielsa and Llorente
Is it possible that the team in ninth is actually the favorite for fourth place? Athletic are coming off of a draw against Espanyol and a loss to Betis as they've struggled to juggle their squad for multiple competitions. They travel away to face Lokomotiv Moscow this week, and face direct rivals Malaga in-between their Europa League matches.
New manager Marcelo Bielsa has done a good job both implementing his system and adapting his methods to La Liga. Fernando Llorente, not a traditional Bielsa No. 9, has done well and has 12 league goals. He had the luxury of inheriting a team that already had great chemistry; many of the Athletic stars played youth football together.
If this team learns how to deal with fixture congestion, they are the most talented and most cohesive side currently in the fourth-ninth places in La Liga. Youngster Iker Muniain gets better every week and the team is now comfortable with Bielsa.