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May 7, 2019

La Liga's Big Races: Everything but the Title Is up for Grabs

By Nick Dorrington

With just two rounds of matches remaining, it says much for just how competitive and unpredictable La Liga has been this season that champions Barcelona are the only one of the league’s 20 teams who are guaranteed to finish the campaign in the position in which they currently stand.

Some other things have already been decided. Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid are both certainties to join Barcelona in next season’s Champions League, while at the other end of the table, Huesca and Rayo Vallecano have both already been relegated. But there are still European places, the final relegation spot and one individual award to be contested.

European Places

Getafe (58 points) are currently in pole position to finish fourth and so secure Champions League football for the first time in their history. They may not have made many friends along the way, but if they are able to get themselves over the line it would be an incredible achievement for the team with the fifth lowest budget in La Liga.

Their three-point cushion over both Valencia and Sevilla (55 points apiece) may, though, look a little more shaky after Sunday’s match away at Barcelona. If Getafe lose there, it is entirely possible that the three of them could all go on to finish level on points. The head-to-head record from matches between the sides would then dictate their finishing positions.

In those circumstances, Valencia would claim fourth, having taken eight points from their four matches against Getafe and Sevilla. Getafe’s haul of seven would see them come home fifth, while Sevilla’s solitary point from those encounters would see them finish sixth. The latter pair would thus qualify for the Europa League group stage. Valencia also have the upper hand in their individual head-to-head records against both Getafe and Sevilla and so look well-placed to capitalise if Getafe cannot get the results they need.

With Valencia now guaranteed not to drop out of the top seven (and so potentially take a Europa League qualifying place away from the league by defeating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final later this month), seventh place in the table will also yield a place in next season’s Europa League, albeit in the second qualifying round. Athletic Club (50 points) are the current occupants of that position, although they have three teams clustered just three points behind them: Real Sociedad, Espanyol and Alavés.

Athletic have not exactly been a fun watch since Gaizka Garitano came in to replace the sacked Eduardo Berizzo as head coach in early December. They and Leganés are the only two teams whose matches have averaged less than two goals in that time, while Athletic’s fixtures have also averaged a league low of 1.45 xG per match. But by focusing on defensive solidity, he has been able to wrestle a team who averaged an xG difference (xGD) of -0.47 per match under Berizzo into positive territory, at 0.06 xGD thereafter, and accumulate enough points to put them in European contention, even if their qualification is far from certain.


Alavés are unlikely to overtake them. Abelardo’s side began the season superbly and were as high as fifth just eight rounds ago. But their underlying numbers never supported such a lofty standing, and just seven points from their last 10 fixtures have seen them drift away from the top seven. They are also the only one of the three sides within striking distance of Athletic with an inferior head-to-head record.

Athletic’s Basque rivals Real Sociedad have won two on the bounce, but they had triumphed in just one of their previous 10 fixtures, have not won more than two consecutive matches all season, and face Real Madrid this weekend and then fellow European hopefuls Espanyol on the final day. That leaves Espanyol as the team most likely to pip Athletic to seventh. They’ve had pretty solid underlying numbers throughout the campaign and have found their feet again in recent months after a disastrous run of nine defeats in 10 from mid-November through late January which saw their early hopes of a top-four challenge subside.

If all four of those teams fail to pick up enough points over the final two weekends, Eibar (46 points, but with the sixth best xGD in the division at 0.15 per match) and Leganés (45) are both still in with a mathematical chance of grabbing seventh. It would take a very strange set of results to get there, but even Betis (44) could still claim it.

Relegation Battle

The two teams who have spent the most time in the drop zone have already been relegated: Huesca and Rayo Vallecano. By contrast, Girona (37 points), the team now most likely to join them, first fell into the bottom three as late as matchday 34.

As I discussed in my relegation roundup in January, Girona leaned heavily on unexpectedly strong performances from goalkeeper Yassine Bounou during the first half of the season, when they had some of the worst defensive numbers in the division. Through 21st January, Bounou prevented 8.67 more goals than the average goalkeeper could have been expected to. In that time, Girona picked up an average of 1.2 points per match. As his numbers have come back down the earth, so his side have gradually dropped down the table. Since that time, he’s conceded 1.39 more goals than expected, and Girona have picked up just 0.82 points per match. Over the last 10 matches, no one has a worse record than their haul of just six points.

Girona host Levante this weekend in a make or break encounter. Win it, and they’d draw level on points with Levante with the better head-to-head record (they drew 2-2 at the Estadi Ciutat de Valéncia earlier this season) and gain some form of control over their own fate; lose it, and results elsewhere could relegate them before the final day, where they would nevertheless again be relying on others to slip up in order to avoid the drop.

Real Valladolid (38 points) jumped ahead of Girona and out of the bottom three with a 1-0 win at home to Athletic on Sunday. Another win away to already relegated Rayo Vallecano this weekend would see them confirm their survival if Girona fail to win against Levante. With a superior head-to-head record against Girona (in addition to an equal or better haul of points against the other sides the pair of them could possibly finish level with), they just need to take no more than one less point than Girona over their last two matches in order to beat the drop.

The three remaining relegation candidates are tied on 40 points: Levante, Villarreal and Celta Vigo.

Levante have lost the mystical, xG-beating powers they displayed through the second half of the last season into the first half of this one, but a pair of strong home victories — 4-0 against Betis on April 24th; 4-1 against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday — in recent weeks mean that three points against Girona would confirm their survival. A draw there and another at home to Atlético on the final day would also be enough. Anything else would depend on results elsewhere.

Celta and Villarreal don’t have that same assurance of a single victory definitely being enough, although Celta’s six points from the two matches between them this season (both 3-2 wins, the second of which featured a star turn from Iago Aspas on his return from injury) would be decisive in the event of them finishing level on points and likely so in seeing Celta avoid relegation if three or more sides are tied. Villarreal are in a slightly trickier position, particularly with Eibar (home) and Getafe (away) left to play, although the swift decision to sack Luis García and reinstate Javi Calleja as head coach after García’s terrible six-match spell in charge either side of the New Year has at least provided them with the opportunity to go into the penultimate round with a solid chance of staying up.

Individual Awards

At an individual level, barring abnormal occurrences over the final two weekends of action, two things are already clear: even if he doesn’t further add to his tally of 34 goals, Lionel Messi will win the Pichichi prize as top goalscorer for the third time in a row and the sixth time overall, while Atlético goalkeeper Jan Oblak will claim the Zamora Trophy for the best goals-conceded-per-game ratio for a fourth consecutive campaign.
In a season in which he has arguably been more important than ever to Barcelona, Messi is also in with a shot of ending the campaign as both La Liga’s top goalscorer and top assist provider for the second year in a row. His main challenger is Sevilla’s Pablo Sarabia, currently level with him on 13 assists, although Villarreal’s Santi Cazorla — whose comeback from injury is one of the feel-good stories of the season — remains in touching distance on 10. Messi is currently running below his xG assisted figures, with 13 assists from 17.60 xG assisted. If he gets the necessary game time in the midst of Barcelona’s other commitments, it would be far from surprising if Messi ends the season atop that ranking too.

Article by Nick Dorrington