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May 18, 2013

Euro battle heats up

La Liga's neck and neck battle for Champions League qualification continued after Valencia and Real Sociedad both won tight games on Saturday evening, leaving the sides level on points with just two games to go.

Valencia's chances of making the top four looked faint in late April, when a dramatic clash between the two rivals at Anoeta finished 4-2 to the txuri urdin, seeing Philippe Montanier's side move five points ahead with just five games left to play. "We are in the final sprint now," Montanier said that night. "We have a good advantage, but not definitive."

The mood then in San Sebastian was buoyant, with fans already making plans for a first ever Champions League campaign, while Valencia's supporters and players began to worry seriously about the consequences of missing out on the Euro millions. With the club about €450 million in debt, and its bankers reportedly calling the shots in the boardroom, the monetisation of assets including, but not limited to, Roberto Soldado, Jeremy Mathieu, Adil Rami and impressive coach Ernesto Valverde seemed just weeks away.

But Montanier had been correct, the race was not run yet. The two following weekends saw a visibly determined Valencia lengthen their stride with a pair of 4-0 wins, against Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano, while a flagging La Real began to tie up, losing 2-1 at Getafe and conceding an injury time equaliser to draw 2-2 at home to relegation threatened Granada last weekend.

By the time Valencia kicked off at Getafe's Coliseum Alfonso Perez on Saturday, they were level on points [59] with the Basques, and looked to have momentum on their side. Confidence was tempered, however, by the knowledge that Luis Garcia's side were eighth, still well in the hunt for a Europa League spot.

Sensing the need for some extra support, Valencia laid on free buses to bring supporters to suburban Madrid and over 1,000 Los Che fans made the trip. Their constant singing helped get all present through the early stages as both teams sat and waited for the other to attack and leave a gap behind. Being kind you could say the exchanges were cagey.

Then out of nothing Valencia scored just before half-time. Dani Parejo took a free kick short and Mathieu surprised maybe even himself by sweeping a cracking first time left foot shot to the net from 20 yards. The Frenchman - recently converted into a centre-half in a typically pragmatic step by Valverde - had put his side back into the top four.

Soldado almost made it two after the break, when a superb first touch took him clear, but Carlos Moya stood up well and saved. Valencia were now humming, with Ever Banega silkily pulling the strings at number 10 and veteran David Albelda expertly watching his back from deep midfield. Soldado and substitute Sofiane Feghouli missed chances for what would have been a deserved second.

The final whistle nevertheless brought loud cheers from the visitors' corner, as well as calls for Valverde to stay no matter what.

"It was a difficult game, they were waiting to break so we had to be careful," the Basque coach said afterwards. "We had chances to kill the game, but had to fight till the end. Fourth place is important for the players and for the club, not just because of the money, but for the future in general."

As the minutes had earlier ticked away, Getafe's muddled attempts to try and force an equaliser had brought whistles from frustrated home fans, whose hopes of maybe seeing Udinese, Schalke or Swansea [and former boss Michael Laudrup] at the Coliseum next season were slipping away.

"We had the chance to have a really good season," Garcia said afterwards. "Today we lacked faith in our football and faith in ourselves. We must keep trying."

Attention then swung south to the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan, where Real Sociedad began knowing they really needed to win. But they were not the only ones. Sevilla boss Unai Emery had claimed bullishly on Thursday that if his side won their three remaining games they would be in Europe next season, while also carefully readying supporters for an exodus of stars like Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo and Geoffrey Kondogbia should that not happen.

The home side's Ivan Rakitic - who having got married to a local girl recently says he wants to stay despite offers from outside Spain - was busy early on. The Croatian first put his side ahead by sliding to the net from 12 yards after Kondogbia was involved in a cleverly-worked corner. He then levelled the scores by unfortunately glancing an Asier Illarramendi free-kick to his own net when under little pressure.

Real Sociedad kept pushing, showing their recent dip had not affected their confidence much. That was until recently primarily bustling centre-forward Imanol Agirretxe added to his collection of superb finishes by guiding an awkward cross to the net from 12 yards to put his team 2-1 up. Sevilla were stung into action, but two decent stops from txuri-urdin keeper Carlos Bravo kept it that way at the break.

The second half grew more and more tense. Sevilla - the ubiquitous Rakitic aside - were short on ideas in possession and relied on set-pieces, two of which saw Negredo flash headers narrowly wide. The visitors, with youngsters Illarramendi in midfield and Inigo Martinez at the back impressive as usual, sat deep and waited to break. Carlos Vela missed their clearest chance to seal it when shooting straight at home keeper Beto.

La Real nevertheless this week held out through injury time to return to fourth, ahead of Valencia on head to head record with both on 57 points. Neither probably want to consider this just now, but both are now assured of the Europa League at least next term. Betis - on 52 points with a game extra at bottom club Mallorca on Monday night - are odds on for the second qualifying place.

With a third spot available in La Liga, the biggest imponderable now is Malaga [currently sixth on 54 points] who will likely have to qualify if their appeal against UEFA's ban for next season is successful. Sevilla [47], who hope Malaga will lose that fight, now face a tough trip to relegation-threatened Osasuna next Sunday, while Getafe [also 47] realistically need to win their last two games [Rayo home & Granada away] and hope for the best.

Further up the table, Montanier's men host a likely demob happy Real Madrid at Anoeta next Sunday, before finishing their campaign at relegation-threatened Deportivo la Coruna. Valencia have Granada at home, then Sevilla away in what looks set to be a nail-biting final day Domingo decisivo, some are calling it. Puns aside, the European sprint looks set to go right to the wire.

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