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Santi Cazorla (left) can help fuel Málaga's rise

Contenders jostle for position behind the big guns

Charles Perrin @charlesperrin7

The hunt is on once again as a handful of La Liga’s elite look to topple Barcelona as the Kings of Spain. But, if they fail on that front, they will be desperate to take their seat at Europe’s top table.

With Spain’s Uefa coefficient second-best behind England, the top three qualify automatically for the Champions League, with the fourth-placed team going through to the play-offs in August.

And while most observers anticipate Barcelona, the reigning champions, and Real Madrid, the current leaders, to again fill the top two spots, there is a growing pack emerging behind them.

This season’s competition for the remaining Champions League places is hotting up – so which teams are looking the best bets to reach the promised land?

Rise of Levante

The Valencia-based Levante have well and truly been punching above their weight in the opening third of the season, during which time the club topped the table for the first time in their history.

Coaches such as Juande Ramos and Bernd Schuster have had spells at the Ciutat de València in years past, but it has taken the lesser-known Juan Ignacio Martínez to transform Levante’s fortunes – and this after spending just €210,000 on Miguel Pallardó and Pedro López in the summer, and fielding the oldest team in La Liga history.

After drawing their opening two games, Martínez’ tight-knit side went on to win their next seven  to reach the summit, shocking Real Madrid and Málaga along the way.

The Real Madrid result, in particular, was a masterclass in beating a more dangerous opponent at their own game. Levante’s thinking was that José Mourinho’s slick side could be vulnerable to counter-attacks and so used a watertight defence to launch their own lightning bursts. Against Málaga, they showed that they could be clinical in front of goal too, and demonstrated the threat they pose from set-pieces.

Their promising young Argentine goalkeeper, Gustavo Munúa, protects a well-marshalled back four, with former Spanish under-21 international José Barkero pulling the strings from midfield and the goals coming from Juanlu and Arouna Koné, who have scored 11 between them.

Levante have fallen off the pace in recent games, following defeats to Osasuna, Valencia, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, and slipped back to fourth. But if they can rediscover their form against weaker opposition and avoid injuries to key players, there is every chance that Martínez’ side could figure in the spring shake-up.

Málaga revolution

Málaga’s ascent into the upper reaches of Spain’s premier division has been documented widely ever since Qatari investors bought the club from the former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz in June 2010.

Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani’s vision was to raise the profile of the south-coast club and to provide it with a new 65,000-seater stadium. In appointing astute tactician Manuel Pellegrini later that year, following the sacking of Jesualdo Ferreira, Al-Thani’s plan was to combine tactical excellence with the financial backing to compete with the big boys.

The ex-Villarreal coach brought in the Argentine defender Martín Demichelis, who had spent the previous seven-and-a-half years at Bayern Munich, to shore up the back line, with high-profile signings Enzo Maresca and Júlio Baptista employed further forward.

And they weren’t afraid to splash the cash last summer either, with former Manchester United forward Ruud van Nistelrooy, fellow Dutch international Joris Mathijsen, Frenchman Jérémy Toulalan and the talented Spanish wingers Santi Cazorla and Joaquín Sánchez lured to La Rosaleda.

The nouveaux riche side have been dubbed La Liga’s Manchester City and, after an assured start, have so far collected 23 points from seven wins to lie sixth in the table.

Mathijsen and Demichelis have formed a solid partnership in central defence, which, allied with Toulalan’s dogged shielding, has meant that big-money signing Cazorla is given licence to roam menacingly.

Goals, however, haven’t been easy to come by, with the strikers, in particular, struggling. Van Nistelrooy has so far failed to roll back the years in the games that he has started, while Venezuelan Salomón Rondón may still be too young to shoulder the goal-scoring burden.

The 4-0 home thrashing by Real Madrid exposed a number of shortcomings that could hamper Málaga’s Champions League aspirations. Trying to play a high line against a side that press well and hunt in packs when they don’t have the ball proved a risky strategy. Consequently, the match was over as a contest by half-time and at least two of Cristiano Ronaldo’s three goals could have been prevented with better marking.

The January transfer window cannot come soon enough for Pellegrini, with the addition of one, maybe even two, prolific strikers needed for his side to kick-start their quest for a top-four berth.

Usual suspects

Of the perennial challengers Valencia, Sevilla and Atlético Madrid, it is the Mestalla side who are currently best-placed, thanks to a run of five wins from their past six games.

Los Che sit seven points behind leaders Real Madrid in third, with technically gifted players such as Pablo Hernández providing the ammunition for Roberto Soldado, one of La Liga’s most lethal marksmen.

Soldado is not far from being the complete modern forward, as he plays off the shoulder of the last man well, is a brilliant poacher and also poses a threat in the air. He already has nine goals to his name and put his aerial ability to good use during the second round of La Liga matches, when he scored the winner in the 1-0 win against Atlético Madrid.

Manager Unai Emery is not afraid to switch things around each match, with Hernández, Argentine Tino Costa and Brazilian international Jonas keeping defences on their toes with their incisive passing and movement.

Jonas was something of a bargain when he was bought for €1.25 million from Brazilian outfit Gremio. He needs more game time, but is shaping up to be a versatile attacker who is comfortable taking on players and has a keen eye for goal.

Sevilla, meanwhile, are proving difficult to break down as they look to move into the Champions League spots from fifth in the table. Sadly for coach Marcelino García Toral, his side’s good work in defence isn’t being matched up front, with 10 goals conceded but only 16 scored in their opening 14 games.

Spanish international Jesús Navas continues to torment defences with his wing play and Croatian conjurer Ivan Rakitic provides valuable assists, but the likes of veteran frontman Frédéric Kanouté and Álvaro Negredo have so far failed to capitalise.

Former Getafe forward Manu del Moral has, however, eased the pressure by bagging five goals since his summer switch, to put himself into the thoughts of national team boss Vicente del Bosque.

García Toral will be fully aware that unless his side start converting draws into wins – they have taken a point six times this season – the prospect of Thursday evening Europa League games will soon loom. It is a similar story for fellow European contenders Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao, although both would likely be more content with a place in Uefa’s less-prestigious cup competition.

Even though they raise and dash the expectations of their supporters year in and year out, Atlético Madrid could still launch a winning run and elbow their way into the Champions League equation from eighth place.

Seven points behind fourth-placed Levante, Gregorio Manzano’s side are suffering from the departures of livewire Sergio Aguero to Manchester City and the 2010 World Cup’s best player, Diego Forlan, to Inter Milan.

By bringing in Colombian Radamel Falcao, the club were banking on the striker picking up from where he left off at the invincible Porto side that scooped the quadruple in Andre Villas-Boas’ last season in charge there.

After a slow start, Falcao has now plundered eight goals, with Spanish under-21 hitman Adrián weighing in with a further five. While the goals scored column is likely to keep ticking over with Arda Turan, Gabi and Diego providing chances from midfield, the defence is conceding too freely and will need to better support talented Uruguayan Diego Godín for Atlético to stand any chance of climbing into the top spots.

Up for grabs

This season looks set to be one of the most open races for those crucial third and fourth spots for many years, which bodes well for a league that needs the lesser teams to shine in the giant shadow of the big two.

While Valencia and Sevilla have the upper hand in terms of recent history, you would not bet against cash-rich Málaga gatecrashing the party. But after a fairytale start to the season, don’t rule out Levante having a few more thrilling chapters to tell.

If you enjoyed this, then check out Elliott Florence’s piece on club v country football “Fight Club”

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