Real Betis v Villarreal: Could this be the new fight for fourth in LaLiga?

·5-min read

For the past three seasons, the top four in LaLiga has been somewhat predictable.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have made up the top three, while Sevilla have claimed sole possession of fourth place and the final Champions League qualification spot.

While that could still ultimately be the case in 2022-23, a wobbly start for Julen Lopetegui's men has seen them claim just one point from their first four games as they sit in 17th place.

Predictably, the early running in Spain has seen Madrid and Barca set the pace, though two other teams who have made promising starts meet at Estadio Benito Villamarin on Sunday.

Ahead of Real Betis v Villarreal, Stats Perform has taken a look at whether Sevilla's city rivals and the Yellow Submarine can challenge for a place in this season's top four.

Betis have shown steady progress in recent seasons, having finished 15th in 2019-20. Then Manuel Pellegrini arrived, seeing them climb up to sixth the following year, and fifth last season, as well as winning the Copa del Rey.

Pellegrini's impact has been impressive at Los Verdiblancos, taking them from flirting with relegation to fighting for European spots and winning a trophy, and they have made a promising start to this campaign as well.

Wins against Elche, Mallorca and Osasuna gave them nine points from nine, before a narrow defeat away at domestic and European champions Real Madrid.

They also got off to a winning start in their Europa League campaign on Thursday, winning 2-0 at HJK.

Betis have not finished ahead of rivals Sevilla since 2017-18, but with the platform they have given themselves in the early weeks of this season, perhaps it is time for their fans to dream again.

As for Villarreal, they have made an even more impressive start, winning three and drawing one of their first four league games.

Unai Emery's men are also yet to concede a goal in LaLiga, with flawless victories against Real Valladolid, Atletico and Elche accompanied by a 0-0 draw at Getafe.

In fact, Villarreal are the fourth team to keep a clean sheet in each of their opening four games of a LaLiga season in the 21st century, after Celta Vigo in 2001-02, Barcelona in 2014-15 and Real Madrid in 2015-16.

Joaquin
Joaquin

Like Betis, Villarreal have also enjoyed a good start in Europe, though oddly they have been a little more gung-ho than in the league, beating Hajduk Split 6-2 on aggregate to qualify for the Europa Conference League, before edging a 4-3 thriller at home to Lech Poznan on Thursday in their first group stage game.

The club from Castellon has had a similar trajectory to Betis, finishing 14th in LaLiga in 2018-19, before advancing to fifth (2019-20), seventh (2020-21) and seventh (2021-22).

Villarreal actually had the third-best goal difference in the league last season behind Madrid and Barca (+26), though finished 12 points and four places behind Atletico in third despite having a better GD by four.

Under the guidance of Emery, they even added an impressive European campaign to their CV last season, beating Bayern Munich to reach the Champions League semi-finals, where they gave Liverpool a scare in the second leg before losing 5-2 on aggregate.

This suggests the components are all there for an effective and dangerous team, they just need to spread their goals out across games and avoid the sort of collapse at key moments that saw them submit control of the tie against Liverpool in the second half at El Madrigal in May.

Emery will have to break through a barrier to ensure success at home and abroad, though.

His record of four Europa League wins with Sevilla (three) and Villarreal is remarkable, but in each year he has lifted the trophy, his teams have never finished higher than fifth in the league, which is also where his Arsenal team finished in the Premier League when they were beaten by Chelsea in the 2018-19 Europa League final.

His opposite number on Sunday, Pellegrini, has had less success in European competition, but does have a Premier League title to his name from his time at Manchester City, as well as league titles from Ecuador and Argentina from much earlier in his career.

The goals of Borja Iglesias will be important, especially with Juanmi injured, with the former already hitting four in four games, while keeping Nabil Fekir in the transfer window will also feel like a new signing. There is also, of course, the experience of the evergreen, in more senses than one, Joaquin at 41 years young.

Villarreal can look to build their success on the solid defence of Raul Albiol and Pau Torres, while Dani Parejo continues to run things in midfield, and similarly to Fekir for Betis, keeping Samuel Chukwueze should be a big boost, especially after his delightful goal against Lech Poznan.

Of course, Sunday's clash is only the fifth game of the season, and there is plenty of time for either team to fall away, or to push on even further, while other sharks are likely to circle as the campaign progresses.

It will be an interesting marking-post though, and perhaps an early indicator of who could be the team for everyone outside the usual top three to chase.

Or who knows? Maybe the one Madrid, Barca and Atletico have to worry about.