We're into the final stretch of the La Liga season and each team has played 31 matches, only seven more to go. Let's revise our mid-term review to see which teams have improved and which got worse, while predicting what could happen by the end of the season. From bottom to top, there are now four main groups.
Group 1: The Battle for Survival.
Eleven teams are still fighting to avoid relegation. The fixture list, home support and experience of this kind of pressure will be key factors. Taking a look at the numbers, 38 points should be enough to stay in the Primera División.
Despite the large number of teams involved, I stand by my original week 20 forecast: Numancia, Espanyol and Recreativo will go down. Numancia just don't have the players to make it, and on Sunday they were surpassed by Espanyol, who defeated Racing and left the foot of the table for the first time since we started speaking about Cristiano Ronaldo going to Real Madrid (ok, probably it wasn't that long ago, but it feels like it).
This coming Wednesday, the periquitos will play Sporting at Gijón, a do-or-die encounter in which the locals need to win to put distance between them and the bottom three. Sporting have lost four in a row, but they remain more resourceful than Espanyol, and their lively supporters can make the difference at home.
Recreativo have not won since March 1, and have a difficult run-in, finishing their season at Gijón. I believe they will already be down before that match. On the other side, Athletic and Getafe have more favourable schedules: the bilbaínos will host Numancia, Sporting and Espanyol, while Getafe will also have home advantage against Osasuna and Numancia; those home matches should be enough for both teams to stay up.
Mallorca and Osasuna were in relegation spots in our mid-term review. Since then, their gaffers (Gregorio Manzano and José Antonio Camacho respectively) have proved that they know how to get teams out of trouble, but both need to win as many points as possible in the next three matches, given that they will finish their season playing consecutively against the top three teams.
Racing, Almería and Betis have easier schedules, and possess scoring threats, which makes a huge difference at any level. Nicola Zigic has scored 10 times since his mid-season move to Racing, Álvaro Negredo's tally is up to 19 for Almería, and the combination of Ricardo Oliveira, the fantastic Emaná and the Brazilian Edú should be able to get the salvation job done for Betis.
Group 2: The King of the white cases
A single team (Valladolid) does not make a group, but I am sure others will join them in the final weeks of the season. The following applies to all those happy campers.
Valladolid have done their homework, and despite some ups and downs they now enter into the final seven matches with almost nothing to play for: they won't be relegated, and it's almost impossible for them to reach a European spot. What's left for them then? Your answer is white cases, as opposed to black cases.
Speaking plain English, and according to old Spanish footballing traditions, a black case situation happens when a team receives money from a rival team to lose a match on purpose. The case refers to the container of the cash changing hands during the transaction. If teams are found out, the punishment is brutal, so this type of story rarely goes public.
The white case situation occurs when a team gets money to win a match the result of which is almost meaningless for them, but terribly meaningful to other teams. White cases are looked upon with more tolerant eyes, and some of them have become famous stories in La Liga.
The most infamous one happened at the end of the 1993-94 season. With Deportivo leading going into the final match of the season they hosted Valencia, who were in a safe 11th position. It should be a sure win for Deportivo, given that they were playing for the title and Valencia were just taking a trip to La Coruña to eat delicious seafood and watch rain fall endlessly. But according to several reports, Barcelona, second in the table, added a bit of spice to the match in the form of a pretty nice white case for the chés and Valencia played like their lives were at stake.
You may remember the final outcome as after a hard-fought match, Valencia's goalie González saved Djukic's last minute penalty, handing Barcelona the title. The most striking moment of the night was not González' save, but the sight of Valencia players celebrating like they had just won La Liga themselves. A couple of years later González publically admitted they had been generously rewarded for their unexpected draw at Depor.
Rumours about white cases usually start to fly around in the last two or three matches, when some teams really have nothing to play for. However, the mighty Valladolid have managed to get seven matches to raise additional cash to spend during their holidays. Wives of Valladolid players must be making great plans for the summer...
Group 3: Europe or Failure.
Whatever their aims were at the beginning of the season, any of these teams will be disappointed to be left out of European competition.
Six teams (Deportivo, Málaga, Villarreal, Atlético, Valencia and Sevilla), play for four spots (two for the Champions League, two for the Europa League). First things first, and against my own mid-term review, Villarreal won't play European football next season. Their schedule is the toughest among all these teams, as they will face the top four in the remaining seven matches. Last season's Villarreal could pull this one off, this year they just don't have it.
A seemingly recovered Valencia and Sevilla also have tough fixture lists ahead, so Atlético could sneak into a Champions League position if they are able to maintain a certain degree of consistency. Their schedule looks easy on paper, but they know how to make things difficult for themselves. The rojiblancos play Valencia on matchday 36, an encounter that could dictate who gets the fourth Champions League spot.
That leaves one Europa League position open, which should go to Málaga. They are consistent and their run-in looks good, so they should beat Villarreal and Deportivo (who play Sevilla and Barcelona in their last two matches of the season) for that European spot.
Group 4: Celtic vs Rangers.
After a few years in which Deportivo, Valencia or Villarreal were able to contend for the title, the La Liga fight has become a parody of the Scottish Premier League.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are in place to become the best champions and runners-up ever, respectively. We have witnessed the odd surprise, like Espanyol defeating Barcelona at the Nou Camp, or every match at the end of Bernd Schuster's reign in Madrid. However, since Juande Ramos took over (except the Barcelona match, his first) and Pinto saved that penalty in Mallorca, both teams have won almost every single match.
Barcelona clearly have the upper hand. Victor Muñoz said it best after his Getafe team was defeated on Saturday: "Their players seem to float, it felt like there were 14 of them on the pitch."
Two questions are relevant to resolve the title race: first, can Barcelona keep that rhythm despite their crazy schedule (Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, Copa del Rey final against Bilbao)? Second, even though Real Madrid only have the league to play for, can the madridistas maintain their winning streak?
My answer is "no" for both. Barcelona will drop a few points, but so will Real Madrid, and they need a perfect record to pip Barca. Both teams will face their toughest opposition in the next four matches, including one another in matchday 34. The Spanish version of the Old Firm derby should be decisive, and while for Barcelona a draw should be enough, Real Madrid need a three-goal victory to go in front on the head-to-head tie-breaker at the end of the season. Too much to ask, even for Real Madrid.
Relegation: Recreativo, Espanyol, Numancia
Europa League: Málaga, Valencia
Champions League: Sevilla, Atlético, Real Madrid