Five clubs who could deny Barcelona a top-four place in La Liga

Barcelona’s 18-year run of finishing in the top four is under serious threat. Planet Sport looks at five clubs who could pinch their Champions League spot.

La Liga, like many of its European neighbours, has become too predictable. Season after season, year after year, fans witness the same old clubs win trophies and bag coveted European positions.

However, the status quo is being threatened and the club that is at serious risk of losing their stranglehold on the division is Barcelona.

The last few days, in particular, have been torrid for the Catalonian giants. A loss in El Classico saw a furious reaction from fans who mobbed Ronald Koeman's car in the aftermath.

Barcelona's Ronald Koeman (3rd L) reacts after a Spanish first division league football match between FC Barcelona and Rayo Vallecano in Madrid

Just days later, a 1-0 defeat to Rayo Vallecano led to the Dutchman's dismissal.

There are also squad issues with Ousmane Dembele looking at the exit door and teenage star Pedri set to miss the next month due to injury.

Barca are currently languishing half-way down the La Liga table with the gap between them and the top four growing.

It does mean the race to finish in those Champions League places could be one of the most exciting in years.

Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are likely to take the top two positions. The other two though, appear to be up for grabs.

Planet Sport takes a look at the potential challengers.

Real Sociedad

Real Sociedad players during the Liga match between Atletico de Madrid and Real Sociedad

Last season's finish: 5th

Top four finishes in last 10 years: 1 (2012/13)

Odds to finish top four this season: 11/10

Real Sociedad have enjoyed a superb start to the season. In fact, Imanol Alguacil's men proudly sat top of the standings after the ninth round of fixtures.

Sound familiar? It should. If you wind the clock back to the previous campaign, you'll see that they started in similar fashion.

Sociedad climbed to the top in the early weeks of the season before gradually sliding down to a fifth-placed finish.

In the end, Los Txuri-Urdin missed out on Champions League soccer by a mammoth 15 points as Sevilla took the fourth and final place.

However, with Sociedad seemingly more experienced and Barcelona potentially out of the picture, could this be their time to become a serious La Liga player?

In truth, a lot will depend on injuries.

Alguacil does have some talented names in his squad but he's also lacking depth. Alexander Isak, David Silva, Alexander Sorloth and Mikel Oyarzabal are all high-quality players, but they're also a nightmare to replace should they suffer any injuries.

What's more, with the team competing in the Europa League, strength in depth could prove an important factor come the end of the season.

Sevilla

Munir El Haddadi of Sevilla CF celebrate a goal during the La Liga Santader match between Sevilla CF and Levante UD at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville

Last season's finish: 4th

Top four finishes in last 10 years: 3 (2016/17, 2019/20, 2020/21)

Odds to finish top four this season: 4/9

Sevilla have been a whisker behind the giants of Spanish soccer for a number of years now.

For all of their Europa League triumphs, they've never been able to truly match the likes of Real, Atletico and Barcelona.

The club have finished in the top four in three of the last five seasons and with the league finally beginning to open up, that run is likely to continue.

Julen Lopetegui has some familiar names in his squad including Lucas Ocampos, Ivan Rakitic, Munir, Oscar Rodriguez, Jesus Navas, Erik Lamela and Thomas Delaney.

The former Spain manager has assembled a team that has the perfect mix of youth and experience. What's more, the last two years have proved that this is a team more than capable of juggling European and domestic duties.

If you're looking for a top-four contender, Sevilla should be at the top of your list.

Athletic Bilbao

Bilbao players during the La Liga week 10 game between Athletic Club and Villarreal CF at San Mames stadium.

Last season's finish: 10th

Top four finishes in last 10 years: 1 (2013/14)

Odds to finish top four this season: 6/1

Athletic Bilbao were well off the pace last season, finishing 10th - a massive 31 points behind the top four.

So what's changed and why are they even on this list?

The primary change has occurred in the manager's position. Gaizka Garitano's departure in January allowed Marcelino Garcia Toral to take over.

Since his appointment - less than a year ago - Los Leones have been able to stop their steady stream of defeats.

Out of his 40 games in charge, Marcelino has only tasted defeat nine times - five of those against Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid.

The problem facing Bilbao is the ability to turn draws into wins. Under the new manager, the team have endured 17 draws, including five already this season.

Then again, it's better to have a problem with draws instead of defeats.

The club have been able to assemble a strong side which is without doubt capable of challenging for big things this season. That's despite Bilbao's cantera transfer policy, which restricts them from signing foreign players. 

Athletic may be the dark horse of this list, but unlike their rivals, they don't have the added burden of European games to contend with. That could give them a slight edge over the likes of Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Real Betis.

Villarreal

Arnaut Danjuma Groeneveld of Villarreal CF celebrates during the Spanish La Liga, football match between Villarreal CF and Cadiz CF at Estadio de la Ceramica.

Last season's finish: 7th

Top four finishes in last 10 years: 1 (2015/16)

Odds to finish top four this season: 8/1

Unlike everyone else on this list, Villarreal have endured a rotten start to the season.

Unai Emery's side have won just two of their 11 La Liga games this season - a run that has seen them drop to mid-table.

In the first few weeks, it appeared that their lack of goals was the problem. Four of their first six league games ended goalless as the Yellow Submarine took eight points from 18 on offer.

Goals have since returned but new issues have come to light - mainly defensive ones. Emery's men have conceded seven goals in their last three games as their stuttering start to the season continues.

The question is, should Villarreal be dismissed as top-four challengers? Absolutely not.

Despite their unfavourable results, Emery's side are playing well. In their 3-3 draw with Cadiz, for instance, the home side enjoyed over 77% possession, produced 14 goal attempts and created 103 dangerous attacks - three times more than their opponents.

We saw a similar story in their recent defeat to Osasuna. On that occasion, Emery's men had 73% possession, 11 goal attempts as well as 88 dangerous attacks - again, almost three times more than their opponents.

Clearly, Villarreal are on the right track and it's just a matter of time before result come their way.

Real Betis

Alex Moreno of Real Betis celebrate a goal during the La Liga Santader match between Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano de Madrid at Benito Villamarin in Seville

Last season's finish: 6th

Top four finishes in last 10 years: 0

Odds to finish top four this season: 10/1

Before Manuel Pellegrini arrived at the Estadio Benito Villamarin, Real Betis had finished 15th in the league - five spots down on the season prior.

The former Manchester City boss quickly got to work and the improvements in his first year were clear for all to see.

For the third time in 13 La Liga seasons, Betis finished the campaign with 15-plus victories under their belt. It was a haul that helped them to a memorable sixth-placed finish.

Not much has changed since then. Pellegrini has enjoyed another solid start with his side boasting six wins from 11 league games.

If that wasn't enough, Betis are also La Liga's second-highest scoring team having already bagged 19 goals - just five short of Real Madrid.

Things are looking promising for Los Verdiblancos and there's no reason why they couldn't sneak into the top four come the end of the season.

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