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La Liga run-in Barcelonas nerves Simeonestruggland mini-leag

2022-06-06 22:47

Now were left with a five-team league and we want to win it, said Barcelona coach Xavi after his teams nervier-than-it should-have-been 2-1 win over Real Mallorca at the Camp Nou last weekend.

The victory put Barca on their own in second place inLa Liga, although a full 15 points behindnewly crowned champions Real Madrid. The other teams in this five-team mini-league Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Real Betis and Real Sociedad are all battling over the three remaining Champions League spots for next season with four games still to play.

How this mini-league plays out will have huge consequences for all involved, on and off the pitch. The 2022-23 revenue difference between qualifying for the Champions League or ending up in the Europa League is at least €50 million. Each La Liga finishing position between second and fifth is worth about €7 million. For Barca and Atletico, this money is critical to their futures. For Sevilla, it makes a huge difference, while Betis and La Real could take huge steps forward.

There is also qualification the Spanish Super Cup, which in theory goes to the top two in La Liga as well as Copa del Rey winners Betis and runners-up Valencia. As we know fromleaked audio involving Gerard Pique and Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales, taking part in the Super Cup could be worth around €8 million toReal Madridand Barca, but much less to other competing clubs, and the Spanish federation have still to confirm the exact criteria to compete in the next tournament next January in Saudi Arabia.

Fear of missing out on next seasons Champions League was behind Barcelonas calculated risk to invest in players like Ferran Torres andPierre-Emerick Aubameyangin January. Their improved form up to Marchs 4-0 clasico win at Real Madrid appeared to have assured a top-four spot, but then came defeats at home to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano, which showed that Xavis side are far from back to their previous level.

Results are so important that head coach Xavi has kept picking Pique, even though the veteran centre-half has had an adductor injury. Forcing that issue now means Pique will miss the rest of the season; a big blow as Barca prepare to head to fifth-placed Betis on Saturday evening.

Securing the Champions League next year is key for Barcelonas transfer business this summer. Free-transfer deals are lined up for Chelseas Andreas Christensen and Milans Franck Kessie, while the futures ofOusmane Dembele, Frenkie de Jong,Adama TraoreDani Alvesand many other squad members remain uncertain. If Xavis team do not finish in the top four, some very tough decisions will have to be taken in the summer.

Sevilla also expected to be playing in the Champions League next season but that is now far from a foregone conclusion. Julen Lopeteguis team were the only challenger to Real Madrid through the autumn and winter, but they have won just four of their last 14 La Liga games amid clear signs of mental and physical exhaustion, and now sit third on 64 points.

Lopeteguis side were whistled by frustrated Sanchez-Pizjuan fans during last weeks 1-1 draw at home to relegation-threatened Andalusian neighbours Cadiz. An increasing number of local fans and pundits are wondering whether their Basque manager, who wasconsidered by Manchester United to be their new bossearlier this year, has taken his current team as far as he can. Three points at Villarreal on Sunday afternoon would calm those concerns, but longer term there is a relationship to be fixed.

Were not playing well. In the last game against Cadiz, we were pretty bad, Sevilla president Jose Castro said at this weeks Feria de Sevilla (the Seville Fair). But there is no debate within the club about Lopeteguis future. He has two years contract left.

Currently in fourth, on 61 points, are Atletico, whose season has also taken a pretty alarming dip with five points from their last four La Liga games. This is the latest twist in a rollercoaster campaign which has included four consecutive defeats for the first time under coach Diego Simeone in December, then five La Liga wins on the bounce through February and March.

Simeone keeps rotating his line-up, trying to find the right blend. He made five changes to the XI again for last weekends trip to Athletic Bilbao, including benching captain Koke, and Atletico were soundly beaten 2-0.

I cant tell you why this is happening, but things are not working on the pitch, said goalkeeper Jan Oblak at San Mames. We have to find the problem and fix it. We have to make the Champions League. If not, there will be problems.

So Sundays game at home to Real Madrid comes at a crucial time. Atletico will be hoping Madrid are still hungover from a double celebration of clinching the league title andreaching the Champions League final, so they can end a run of zero wins and just two goals in their last eight derbis. Another defeat would really sour the mood at the Wanda Metropolitano just as the season comes to its climax.

Not making the top four for first time in El Cholos decade in charge would leave Atletico needing to sell important players this summer. The timing would also be problematic just as Atleticos hierarchy are looking for a new stadium sponsor, with the deal with Chinas Wanda Group soon to end.

Betis (fifth with 58 points) and Real Sociedad (sixth with 56) should really be outsiders to finish in the top four but the fixture list and form-lines of all the teams involved give them a chance. Manuel Pellegrinis team would be right back in the mix if they can beat Barca at home on Saturday evening, and they won the reverse fixture 1-0 at the Nou Camp in December.

Sociedads season has been remarkable. They have accumulated 56 points while scoring just 33 goals in 34 games so far, making them the most efficient team in La Liga history (ahead of Friday nights game at bottom team Levante). If the Basques are still in the mix on the final weekend, their game at home to Atletico could be a cracker.

Other key fixtures during the run-in include Sevilla visiting Atletico and Villarreal against La Real on the penultimate weekend of the season. Unai Emerys team currently sit seventh, in the Europa Conference League spot, just one point ahead of an Athletic Bilbao team who are in fine form at the right moment.

Real Sociedad are currently on track to secure Europa League qualification with a +1 goal difference (Photo: Ander Gillenea/AFP via Getty Images)

At the bottom, Levante and Alaves both look doomed, with four teams then battling to avoid the last relegation spot. Saturdays clash between US-owned Real Mallorca and China-owned Granada is a six-pointer of global proportions.

So while Madrid already have the title sewn up, there is plenty to play for over the last four rounds of fixtures, especially in the Europe-chasing mini-league where things are likely to get very nervy, and more surprises and turnarounds seem likely.

I believe it is what Cholo Simeone said, Xavi said last weekend. The teams who make the Champions League will be those who show the most intensity, mentality, faith and desire.