Who has the potential to gate-crash the Champions League places?
The LaLiga season this year appears to have a very defined top two. Despite this, there is serious potential for those other two spots to be occupied by one of many teams. While we already talked about Villarreal and Atlético Madrid, who I think will finish third and fourth, there are still a few teams who could tip over the apple cart, so to speak, and there is one team that is usually among the Champions League places who will probably not be there this season.
I have gushed over and loved Real Betis plenty of times on this blog, but what is one more time?
Betis had a strong season last year under manager Manuel Pellegrini. While they narrowly missed out on the Champions League places, they paired a strong league season with a Copa del Rey victory, their first trophy since 2005. They are a very entertaining attacking team, and the front three pairing of Sergio Canales, Nabil Fekir, and Juanmi have earned praise throughout the league for their incredible attacking potency. And despite their financial struggles, they were able to add well in the summer transfer window, including talented young Brazilian winger Luiz Henrique and experienced center back Luiz Felipe, and they were able to retain most of their key players, with Marc Bartra and Héctor Bellerín being the only major departures.
It is also starting to look like that it is not just Fekir, Canales, and Juanmi. Borja Iglesias in particular has been phenomenal, winning the first LaLiga Player of the Month award of the season and earning his maiden call-up to the Spanish National Team. Having also finished last season strong and been the Man of the Match in the Copa del Rey Final, Iglesias is in his golden moment as a footballer, and it really adds to Betis’ potent attack to have those three dynamic players centered around a lethal striker. Luiz Henrique certainly looks like a solid at worst player early on, and Rodri Sánchez is starting to show the potential that people on the Verdiblanco side of Seville think he has. There is more there in this Betis team, and the capability of the players combined with their daring style can have them crash into the top four and finally get their Champions League birth. There are obviously concerns, especially if they have to go a significant amount of time without one or more of Juanmi, Fekir, or Canales, but the potential is there.
Real Sociedad, well, we always feel like they should be making that next step. The potential is there and has been there for a while.
Obviously they lost Alex Isak to Newcastle. Despite how poor of a season Isak had last season, that is still an incredibly talented player that will not be there. And in a very unfortunate turn of events, La Real‘s Isak replacement, ex-Almería striker Umar Sadiq, will miss the remainder of the season due to a ruptured ACL. Alexander Sørloth has arrived back at the club as well, but his previous stint in San Sebastián was fairly underwhelming. So we have arrived back at the same base question of the last few years: can Real Sociedad score enough goals?
While legitimate questions can be asked over the potency of their striker options, La Real have certainly gotten better around the center forward. The additions of Brais Méndez, Takefusa Kubo, and Mohamed-Ali Cho add a great combination of technical creativity and trickery to that forward line, which is especially needed while they await the return of talismanic forward Mikel Oyarzabal from injury. Kubo in particular has started the season well, and it really seems that the mercurial Japanese wonderboy has found himself a home. Behind the forward line, Real Sociedad retain their strength. The midfield pairing of Mikel Merino and Martin Zubimendi are both still at the club, as are the center back pairing of Robin Le Normand and Aritz Elustondo. That solidity is a large reason why La Real only conceded 37 goals last season, and all of those key pieces still being at the club is a massive deal.
But they also only scored 40 goals last season, in a team that included Isak. And that is a problem, especially without Sadiq and Oyarzabal. If they do not finish in the top six, this will be why.
And then there is Valencia, who are surprisingly fun?
Last season’s leader in fouls and yellow cards have gone through a makeover this past summer. Gone is former manager José Bordalás, as well as Gonçalo Guedes, Carlos Soler, and Maxi Gómez. In comes new manager Gennaro Gattuso. The fiery Italian seems a strong personality fit for Valencia, but his highly technical and fluid ideal style of play might be a surprise for those thinking his teams play much like he did as a player. But do not worry, Gattuso still yells loudly, gesticulates wildly, and sweats profusely on the touchline as a manager, so he is still the same Italian bulldog you love.
Gattuso has abandoned the very rigid 4-4-2 favored by Bordalás and Marcelino and moved to a more fluid 4-3-3, prioritizing building out from the back and creating more from overloads and technical midfield play rather than crosses or the pace of Guedes. This system places priority on the two central midfielders and the two wingers, with the two midfielders controlling tempo and incision and the two wingers causing havoc, and Gattuso has the right players in both positions. While keeping Soler would have been ideal, the central midfield pairing of Yunus Musah and new signing André Almeida certainly both look capable in this position, with Musah especially looking strong, and they can also turn to Ilaix Moriba and Nico González on the bench. The winger duo of Samu Castillejo and Samuel Lino certainly cause plenty of issues for the opposition as well. This leads to plenty of goal-scoring chances, and maybe new signing Edinson Cavani can help in that regard?
Obviously, there are still issues. Mamardashvilli is a great goalkeeper, but the defense in front of him is not great. This is a team most in transition of the chasing pack sides, and they still do not quite have the quality needed to truly challenge the rest for European places. Their potential is undeniable, though, and if they work through the issues and growing pains early in Gattuso’s reign, this could be a very interesting team this season.
We can now spare a thought for Athletic Club, a team certainly capable of being in this conversation aside from one glaring issue.
Athletic’s very unique recruitment policy means the pool of players they are able to sign is quite small, and when this team has an incredibly urgent need for a high-level goalscoring striker, there is not much out there for them to choose from. Obviously players like Joselu and Raúl De Tomás are very talented and experienced LaLiga goalscorers who would both make Athletic significantly better and were both available this summer, but neither are Basque or were raised through the academy of a Basque club. The only player who fits the need and meets Athletic’s recruitment requirements, technically speaking, is Antoine Griezmann, and, well, that is not going to happen.
And while I understand and have immense respect for how Athletic choose to operate, this is an absolute shame, because there is an incredible amount of technical quality in this Athletic team and they could be a very good side if they had that consistent goalscorer. Iker Muniain is one of the best midfielders in Spain coming off of maybe his best professional season. Álex Berenguer is a solid and productive forward who fits this Athletic team very well. And we are now really starting to see the qualities of emerging young talents Nico Williams and Oihan Sancet. The return of Ander Herrera brings even more quality to that midfield, and it says quite a bit about the players already there that Herrera might not be a nailed on starter in that team. Ernesto Valverde’s return to Bilbao offers the right combination of room for reinvention and reinvigoration of the team while being able to maintain many of the things that Marcelino’s Athletic did well. Valverde also brings an understanding of the club and an immediate respect from the players, club hierarchy, and supporters. This is a team that has started hot out of the gates, one that has scored a surprising amount of goals and one that certainly looks like a dangerous opponent if key players are able to stay healthy.
But the base question with Athletic is the exact same as the one for their Basque rivals Real Sociedad: can they score enough goals? With the number nine role boiled down to one of Iñaki Williams, Asier Villalibre, and Gorka Guruzeta, there really is no one there who can be that high level striker that Athletic need. It then becomes a question of if they can share the burden enough to score sufficient amounts of goals as a collective. Can Muniain, Berenguer, Nico and Iñaki, Sancet, and others combine to be just threatening enough to allow Athletic to win when they need to?
And then there is Sevilla, which is a very difficult conversation.
This might be slightly cheating to say that Sevilla will struggle when I am writing this after they got off to their joint-worst league start in club history, but the warning signs were there for everyone to see as early as the summer. Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla were always a team that could not score goals at a high level, but a very stout defense and calmness and patience in their play allowed them to find their way through teams and be successful. There was faith that their defense could remain resolute enough to give the attack enough time to eventually figure it out. The crux of that defense was the center back pairing of Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos. Both have now left the club. That is a problem.
Sevilla are used to selling their top talents and replacing them, but this feels different. Much of Sevilla’s financial issues had to be resolved through player sales, so the losses of Koundé and Carlos feels much more desperate and difficult than, say, the loss of Clément Lenglet or Pablo Sarabia before them. And the replacement of those two has not gone as well as it usually does. Marcão was signed injured and has yet to play, and while Tanguy Nianzou certainly is promising, this is akin to throwing him in the deep end immediately. And the defense is still deficient, leading to Lopetegui selecting academy products Kike Salas and José Ángel Carmona, who have been fine given the situation but certainly are not ideal.
And there are just not enough goals in this team. Losing Jesús “Tecatito” Corona to significant injury, as well as Lucas Ocampos leaving for Ajax, has certainly hurt. Youssef En-Nesyri and Rafa Mir just simply have not done enough to convince anyone that they are or can be high level LaLiga strikers. New signing Isco is obviously going to take time to get up to speed, and there just is not enough coming from Érik Lamela or Ivan Rakitić to make up the difference. Is there good news? I am not quite sure. Obviously Sevilla have the ability to figure it out, but the start to the season has been very poor, and you have to think Lopetegui might be facing the axe if this does not change. Sevilla could be looking at a season without European football altogether next year.
Can anyone not mentioned here break into this group? Well, I do think there are good qualities in both Osasuna and Celta Vigo, with each standing a good chance to be a potential surprise team. But of the teams we discussed, I think they finish in the following order (not necessarily finish 5th through 9th):
Real Betis, Real Sociedad, Athletic Club, Valencia, Sevilla. A team like Osasuna or Celta Vigo could finish between any of the latter three.