When the season first began way back in August Athletic Club had one clear goal – to qualify for the Europa League. Ernesto Valverde has had the Lions in European competition for three straight years and the plan from the beginning was to keep that going. A top six finish was always the ultimate goal, but qualifying for the Champions League again was the distant dream. Now, with three games remaining in the calendar, that is still a possibility.
Sevilla’s 4-2 loss to Malaga on Monday meant that Athletic is only six points off of fourth place with nine points left to play for. While that may seem like a daunting task, the remaining fixtures certainly make it possible. Sevilla still has to take on a strong Real Sociedad side this coming weekend and will travel to face off with Real Madrid seven days later. They do end their season at home against Osasuna, but the first two matches do carry the possibility to drop points.
Meanwhile, Athletic travels a little ways down the road this Sunday for a match against Alaves before hosting Leganes at the San Mames the following weekend. The Lions do end their season against Atletico Madrid at the final game at the Vicente Calderon and they will, understandably, be underdogs in that one. Still, the next two games are winnable and the Basques should be favorites for both.
The key factor in the race for fourth place is that Athletic also holds the tiebreaker over Sevilla, meaning they can finish above Sevilla even if they are level on points. It is also important to note that Villarreal currently holds a one point lead over Athletic for fifth place and will be a factor in this race as well. The Yellow Submarine still have to play Barcelona and Valencia on the road so their remaining schedule isn’t easy either. Real Sociedad is still in play as well, trailing Athletic by a single point for sixth place.
Sevilla’s loss on Monday definitely opened up the race for fourth place and has brought some drama back into La Liga. They remain the favorites to earn the last Champions League spot, but the possibility of Athletic and Villarreal making a late push does make things very interesting. Even if the Basques are not able to overtake Sevilla and Villarreal, a top six finish will still be seen as a successful season because that was the goal put in place at the beginning of the season.