Unai Emery

The race for the four golden tickets in Spanish football – the Champions League places – has not been quite this open for some time.

The El Clasico duo, Barcelona and Real Madrid, have a significant headstart as their budget dwarfs those of their competitors. Perennial contenders Atletico Madrid would be happy just to have half of the money available to the big two.

However, that fourth ticket is up for grabs. Even asking the most seasoned La Liga analysts would be as good as going to the best online slots reviews from gambling experts, if you were hoping for some clarity on the matter.

Events have conspired to weaken Sevilla greatly. Los Nervionenses have secured the spot for the last three seasons, yet until Julen Lopetegui was replaced by Jorge Sampaoli, their last nine months have shown form that would not be out of place in a relegation battle. Their chances have been severely handicapped as a result.

City rivals Real Betis have been unable to invest significantly over the past three summers and had their own race to fit their players into the La Liga-assigned salary limit. The additions of Luiz Felipe and Luiz Henrique look smart, but as always with Real Betis, the doubt will be squad depth. Missing key forwards Nabil Fekir and Juanmi for much of the first part of the season, Manuel Pellegrini has shown himself to be an expert at stretching his resources.

Real Sociedad currently occupy that fourth position. They have also qualified for Europe for the last three seasons and manager Imanol Alguacil has no shortage of admirers. Solid at the back, technically gifted in midfield, La Real look in the best shape of any of the contenders. The only issue being this is a familiar feeling – the second half of the season drop-off has been just as consistent as they have in recent years. The loss of Umar Sadiq to long-term injury, brought in to replace Alexander Isak, may weigh heavier then.

The Basque derby should involve extra spice this year, as Ernesto Valverde has powered a revival at Athletic Club. Los Leones have themselves consistently struggled for goals but so far are third-top scorers in the division.

And then there’s Villarreal. The Yellow Submarine have been sensational in Europe under Unai Emery; however, his league form has flattered to deceive. Touted in both of his previous seasons to challenge for fourth place, both have ended in seventh. The sensation is that with departure of Emery to Aston Villa and the arrival of Quique Setien, it might actually give them a better shot at doing so.

Emery’s struggles to beat teams lower in the division have consistently held them back, with many asking why Villarreal were not comfortable taking more risks against smaller sides. That will not be the case under Setien. Renowned for his attacking and expansive football, Setien will back himself to unlock the considerable attacking resources at his disposal.

This is not to say that Emery did a bad job, but that Villarreal have the strongest squad out of the challengers is a truth for many. Domestically at least, it may be there they can fix their Achilles heel with Setien, while their competitors do not have such a clear route forward.

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