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Villarreal-Atlético and the fight for LaLiga’s European spots

I’d take Ángel Correa over João Félix and Antoine Griezmann any day of the week,” an Atlético-supporting friend of mine said to me recently. And as if to prove my pal’s point, the Argentine opened the scoring at La Cerámica on Sunday with a wonderful goal. He may not come with the glitz of his competitors for the role of second striker, and is regularly shifted out wide, often on thankless tasks, but Correa is earning his corn, and his place in the team, by working his socks off and scoring goals. And it was a rebound from his shot, tucked away by Geoffrey Kondogbia, that brought Atlético’s second. However, I don’t want to make what was an extraordinary match all about Correa. It was a real game of chess between Diego Simeone and Unai Emery, one in which there was plenty to enjoy and to muse upon.

A host of clubs are in the shake-up in a tight race for the top four

The 2-2 draw puts the brakes on Villarreal’s surge up the table and keeps Atleti in the Champions League places, amid a tight top-four fight in which three points separate third and seventh. Above that group, second-placed Sevilla are now so far ahead that they’re not only closing in on a Champions League spot but have a realistic chance of winning the title. Five points off leaders Real Madrid and with a game in hand, their fate is in their own hands and they can as good as stop looking over their shoulder at that closely-bunched chasing pack, which begins with Real Betis, who have 34 points, continues with Atleti, Real Sociedad (both on 33) and Barcelona (on 32), and finishes with surprise package Rayo Vallecano, on 31. The likes of Villarreal, Athletic and Valencia are all out to join them, too.

I’m often asked if I think we still have a title race in the Spanish league this season, as if Madrid’s lead were definitive. Firstly, and as I’ve made pretty plain above, it isn’t, and won't be as long as Sevilla, who don’t look like offering any let-up, keep going as they are. But LaLiga isn’t just about who wins it. It’s also about who goes down and who books their ticket for European places, and in which class: first (Champions League), second (Europa League) or third - the recently created Conference League, which, depending on who qualifies, could be viewed as more of an indignity than a reward. It’s shaping up as a thrilling race for the continental spots, and Sunday’s terrific game between Villarreal and Atlético was ample evidence of that.