OPINION | LaLiga relegation battle: who will survive the drop?

With just four games remaining in one of the most dramatic LaLiga seasons of the modern era, the unprecedented, three-way title race that has gripped the nation finally looks to be coming to a spectacular close. Yet, while all eyes will be on the Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona this weekend, there is quite the storm brewing at the bottom of the table too, where five of Spain’s lesser-known teams look set to scrap it out in a relegation battle to end all relegation battles.

Just one point separates Elche in 19th and Alavés in 16th, with Getafe and Valencia teetering dangerously close to the edge too. Here, I look to give the lowdown on each relegation-threatened club, while also looking at their respective run-ins, to try to predict the most unpredictable relegation scrap in recent memory. It’s set to be a thrilling finale, starting in just a few hours in San Sebastián.

20th – Eibar, 26 points

Starting from the bottom, and four points adrift from the rest are José Luis Mendilibar’s Eibar, a team who have consistently defied the odds over the last six years to maintain their top-flight status. This season, however, has sadly taken a turn for the worse, as a torrid run of 16 games without a win – picking up just four points from a possible 48 – left them stranded at the foot of the table, with hope of a great escape dwindling as the weeks went by.

With an impressive 3-0 win over Alavés last weekend, however, a game in which veteran striker Kike García grabbed the club’s first ever LaLiga hat-trick, Mendilibar’s men showed the fighting spirit that has won the hearts of millions during their miraculous survival acts of the last few years. Yet, despite the best efforts of 12-goal striker Kike, who has contributed a staggering 54% of his side’s goals this season, alongside the electric Sevilla loanee Bryan Gil, it finally looks as if plucky Eibar are going to have to face the drop.

19th – Elche, 30 points

Since re-appointing former Villarreal and Celta Vigo manager Fran Escribá in February, Elche have looked much more solid side, but still remain in deep trouble after the narrowest of defeats to Atlético Madrid last weekend, a game in which they missed an agonising stoppage-time penalty to salvage a point from the league leaders.

Until that game, Elche were actually unbeaten at home under Escribá, notably taking all three points from Sevilla back in March. Away from home, however, and the new manager has picked up just one point from a possible 21 – a statistic that doesn’t make for good reading ahead of a crucial trip to Real Sociedad tonight.

Striker Lucas Boyé is the club’s top goalscorer this season, with seven, and the Argentine will be crucial if Elche are to pull off a great escape, alongside talented wingers Pere Milla, Fidel and Tete Morente. All eyes will also continue to be between the sticks, where the excellent Édgar Badía looks to have been dropped in place of Tottenham loanee Paulo Gazzaniga for the run-in. It’s beginning to look like a tall order for Elche though, who could really do with all three points in San Sebastián tonight.

18th – Huesca, 30 points

Having spent over 27 weeks in the LaLiga relegation zone, including 13 straight matchdays at rock bottom, Huesca’s revival under new manager Pacheta means that they are still, remarkably, within touching distance of LaLiga safety.

Much like Eibar, the Aragonese side are one of the smallest clubs to ever play in Spain’s top-flight, with a stadium capacity of 7,000 and a reported budget of 10% of the size of Barcelona’s. Yet, despite their evident struggles throughout their second ever LaLiga season, the club have probably been one of the best bottom sides in Europe, producing some eye-catching football, and playing with an admirable fearlessness against much bigger teams than themselves, but just lacking that ability to kill off games when they’ve had the chance.

The exuberant Pacheta, bouncing around on the touchline, has given the club hope since his arrival, turning those missed chances into goals and securing some huge wins over the last month, including a quite brilliant 2-0 triumph at Levante, and last week’s crucial 1-0 win over Real Sociedad. 12-goal striker Rafa Mir is the attacking focal point, but ex-Everton man Sandro has also been looking incredibly sharp over the last few weeks, alongside the sensational, Javi Galán, a marauding wing-back who is always looking to cross. Those three will be the difference for Huesca if they’re going to pull off their fairy-tale escape.

17th – Real Valladolid, 31 points

A team who have been here before, Sergio González’s Real Valladolid have precious experience when it comes to beating the drop. However, with a tough run of fixtures still to come, this could be the biggest test yet for Los Pucelanos.

Having drawn a league-high 16 games this season, Real Valladolid are a competitive side, often taking the top clubs all the way – drawing twice with Sevilla and only losing out at Camp Nou to a 92nd minute Ousmane Dembélé goal, despite having played the last 15 minutes with 10 men. It’s the games against relegation rivals that have cost them, however, having lost twice to Alavés, and once each to Huesca, Elche and Eibar, leaving them with just three points from a possible 24 against the bottom five clubs.

Their last two results, draws with Real Betis and Athletic Club, coming from behind to nick a point in both, highlighted the great character throughout Sergio’s side, with Israeli striker Shon Weissman scoring two excellent equalisers, to show that this side certainly aren’t going to go down without a fight. Off the back of scoring 37 goals for Austrian side Wolfsberger last season, Weissman’s debut campaign in Spain has so far been underwhelming, but he will be key, alongside tricky winger Óscar Plano and dangerous full-back Lucas Olaza as things get more and more desperate in Valladolid – starting with a huge game away to Valencia this week.

16th – Alavés, 31 points

Another side who have benefitted hugely from a new-manager bounce, Alavés looked in big trouble before the arrival of Javi Calleja, sitting bottom of the table after a comfortable 3-1 victory for Celta Vigo at Medizorroza. However, with eight points from his first five games in charge, including vital wins over Huesca and Villarreal, the Basque side have clawed their way back out of the relegation zone and given themselves a chance.

Last weekend’s result will no doubt be concerning, though, as Alavés slipped to a 3-0 defeat to bottom side Eibar. Nonetheless, belief has come flooding back in recent weeks, as highlighted by the crazy celebrations sparked by Rodrigo Battaglia’s 85th minute rocket to win that Huesca game in mid-April.

Key to their dramatic resurgence has been former Stoke man Joselu, scoring and assisting in that remarkable win over Villarreal, as well as the outstanding goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco, who has single-handedly kept his side in games of late. The next two for Alavés, at home to Levante and away to Elche, could well be the difference between survival and relegation.

The run-in:

With Elche taking on Europa League chasing Real Sociedad later on today, the other four clubs in the relegation battle will be hoping for a favour from Imanol Alguacil’s side, as each go into winnable fixtures of their own this weekend. Alavés, in particular, will be looking to put distance between themselves and the relegation zone on Saturday, taking on an out-of-form Levante at Mendizorroza, with the Valencian side having lost to both Huesca and Elche in recent weeks. There’s also a huge game at Mestalla, where Real Valladolid take on Valencia, who themselves are winless in six, with Sergio’s men hoping to drag Los Che right down into the thick of the relegation scrap.

For Huesca, a trip to an already-safe Cádiz represents a decent chance for points, with Álvaro Cervera’s side having little to play for after hitting the 40-point mark last week, while Eibar face a do-or-die trip to Getafe, the side in 16th place on 34 points. Wins for Eibar and Real Valladolid this weekend could seriously open up the relegation fight to Getafe and Valencia, just four and six points clear of the relegation zone respectively, with manager-less Valencia having to face three of the bottom four, as well as Sevilla, before the season is out.

The following week sees a huge game between Alavés and Elche, a fixture that will go a long way to deciding the fate of both sides. With the other three sides at home to inconsistent European-chasing sides, upsets can’t be discounted, with all three opponents having dropped points at relegation-threatened clubs in the last three weeks, including a shock 2-1 victory for Alavés over Villarreal two weeks ago.

Gameweek 37 sees similar opportunities for upsets, as Alavés host an inconsistent Granada, Elche travel to Cádiz, and Eibar travel to Valencia, whereas the final round of fixtures presents an incredibly tough run-in for each club, as the title race meets the relegation scrap for what looks set to be a thrilling finale. If Eibar and Real Valladolid are still alive and kicking by then, the two final-day games at Ipurua and the Estadio José Zorrilla could be monumental in settling things at both ends of the table.

In the shorter term, though, if Eibar lose out to Getafe this weekend, then it’s as good as all over for Mendilibar’s side, who’s spirited win over Alavés last weekend may prove to be too little too late. While Getafe haven’t been their usual selves throughout 2021, a textbook José Bordalás smash-and-grab at Huesca two weekends ago, followed by a narrow defeat to Villarreal – in which they registered 15 attempts to Villarreal’s four – suggests that they will live to fight another day this season, and could potentially condemn Eibar to relegation this weekend. Even if they don’t get the job done so quickly, clashes with Celta Vigo, Levante and Granada – all with little to play for – provides ample opportunity for Bordalás’ men to confirm their LaLiga status for another season.

Just above them, and while on the surface, things might look slightly more comfortable for Valencia, the fact that they play three of the teams below them means that they are in real danger of being sucked into an uncomfortable fight for safety. Starting with a tricky encounter with a desperate Real Valladolid, things could potentially get very awkward for the six-time LaLiga winners, making the timing of Javi Gracia’s dismissal look all the more baffling.

Elsewhere, and things become almost impossible to predict amongst the other sides. If there is to be a loser in that tantalising clash between Elche and Alavés, I would predict them to accompany the unfortunate Eibar in Segunda next season. You also have to worry for Real Valladolid, especially if they fail to pick up three points at Mestalla on Sunday, with their remaining three fixtures against top-half clubs, still with great incentive to win themselves. That just leaves Huesca, who, with an impressive win over Real Sociedad last time out, might just actually pull of the Great Huescape after all; although some points against Cádiz this weekend and Atheltic Club the next are a must.

Predicition: Eibar, Elche, Real Valladolid to go down. But it’s going to be very, very close!

Thom Harris

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