In the last few years, the top six teams have distanced themselves from the rest of La Liga.  Real Madrid and FC Barcelona represent the top two, and Villarreal, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla, and Valencia compete for the next four places.  Atlético Madrid continues their bumbling start into the Christmas break, and Villarreal picked themselves up from a shocking beginning, but a Champions League spot may be a bridge too far.

This season, the hierarchy seemed to be melding together as Sevilla and Valencia kept up with the two paragons of Spanish football.  Valencia forced a 0-0 draw with Barcelona, but many would proclaim that Los Che outplayed the Blaugrana.  Sevilla handed Real Madrid its only non-Clásico loss when Sevilla mauled Los Blancos 2-1 at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.

Heading into Round 12 on November 28, these four teams were separated by a mere four point: Barcelona on 28 points, Real Madrid on 27 points, Sevilla on 25 points, and Valencia on 24 points.  Real Madrid and Barcelona were going to rumble in El Clásico, and the would-be contenders had a chance to stamp themselves legitimately in the title race.  As La Liga takes a brief hiatus until the beginning of 2010, there is a ten-point gap from first to fourth.

For Valencia, playing on the pitch became a sanctuary from all of the rumors and backroom strife within the club.  Change of ownership, lack of funds, and not-so-subtle transfer innuendo of their top players could have easily broken the tightest of clubs.  When they defeated Sevilla 2-0 in the opening game of the season in a hotly contested encounter, the signs of greatness showed in their play.  David Villa and David Silva, who supposedly had little chances of staying at Valencia, actually started for Valencia, achievements in themselves.  Juan Mata and Pablo Hernández were coming into their own, as these young starlets rampaged down the flanks against a resolute Sevilla defense.

Their home form, however, has not continued since the Sevilla match, and they have lost points that will be difficult to recover over the course of the season.  An overall record of 2-4-1, including inexcusable draws against Sporting Gijón, Atlético Madrid, and Mallorca, has held Valencia from fulfilling their unlimited potential.  Those three matches came against solid teams, but late equalizing goals and lack of finishing contributed to a loss of six points that they let slip away.

Valencia’s recent results have been a microcosm for the whole of their season.  As mentioned previously, their draw against Mallorca occurred because of an 84th minute penalty unnecessarily committed by Bruno Saltor and an abundance of goal-scoring opportunities abandoned by Valencia that would have made Borja Valero’s penalty goal a footnote in a Valencia win.

They went into the cathedral of San Mamés and pulled out a win against a strong Athletic Bilbao team who had held Barcelona to a draw and thrashed Almería 1-4 in the previous two weeks.  Fortune favored Valencia as David López hit the post on another late conceded penalty, but their confidence away from home is unquestioned, and their 6-1-1 record away from the Mestalla distinguishes them as the best road team in La Liga.

Valencia’s clash against Real Madrid at home was a statement game to prove to the Spanish Old Firm that Valencia was not only window dressing but serious challengers to the throne.  In the first half of that match, they executed their tactics to perfection, and Real Madrid was on their heels.  To be fair, Real was without their two galácticos Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká, but even if they were on the pitch, Valencia still would have had the upper hand.  A common theme throughout the season, Valencia missed multiple chances to open the scoring tally.  The epic nature of the second half showed the best of these two teams, as Valencia counter-punched every Real advancement, but the Ezequiel Garay header to give Real Madrid their third different lead eventually broke Valencia’s spirit, and Valencia failed to win at home for the fifth time in seven matches.

The tête-à-tête between Deportivo La Coruña and Valencia was a drab draw that saw Depor passively sit back in their own third of the field, as they dared Valencia to bring men forward and break through their organized defense.  Valencia took the bait, owning a clear majority of the possession, but it was Depor who created the best opportunities at goal, including a couple of swift counter-attacks that sent Adrián free and a looping header by Juan Carlos Valerón that hit the crossbar.  Earning a point at the Riazor is no small accomplishment, but they fell another two points behind Real and Barça.

Sevilla has been much more stable than Valencia, and after a third place finish last season, high expectations filtered from the dressing room and the media, as they proclaimed Sevilla as the team that could repeat the feat of Villarreal when they dislodged Barcelona from the top two in the 2007-08 season.  After they lost their opener at Valencia, they went 8-1-1, including a thriller over Real Madrid at home.  Standing three points behind Barcelona with a chance to get within one point after twelve matches, the situation could not have been more ideal.  Facing a Málaga side that struggled in the relegation zone all season, pencil in three points for Sevilla.

Sevilla played as though winning was a foregone conclusion.  Málaga did not stick to the script, as two first half goals stunned the Sevillistas inside the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.  Luís Fabiano single-handedly brought Sevilla from the abyss with a brace in the second half to salvage a draw, but they missed a chance against a relegation favorite to inch closer to the top spot.

A similarly underwhelming performance against Real Valladolid the next week put themselves further away with a hint of never regaining it back.  Even though Valladolid scored the opener, they were limited to ten men a few minutes later when Borja Fernández received a straight red card for a vicious tackle on Diego Perotti.  When Fabiano scored a penalty late in the first half to equalize, it was not a matter of if, but by how many would Sevilla score in the second half.  Frustration boiled over as Sevilla spoiled their well-executed openings, and another draw at home against a lower tier side began to irritate a normally loyal fan base.  The whistles rained down, and the players knew that a win at El Molinón against a stubborn Sporting Gijón was paramount to abate the criticism.

They secured the three points at Sporting with a hard-fought 0-1 result, where there was little space to maneuver and physical play by both teams.  The egg that Sevilla laid against Getafe, however, to end the calendar year had symptoms similar to Valencia: a poor performance at home, numerous opportunities spurned, an overwhelming majority of possession, and a plucky opponent who has an unending desire and spirit.  Getafe’s Roberto Soldado certainly made a name for himself with two goals and ten goals overall, third in the Pichichi race behind David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  There are rumors percolating of a £10 million offer by Sam Allardyce and Blackburn Rovers for Soldado’s services.

Five points out of twelve against teams they should defeat has Sevilla nine points behind Barcelona and seven points behind Real Madrid.  Maybe the players started to believe in their own superiority as portrayed in the Spanish tabloids and media, but whatever the reasons, they have been humbled as they head into the holiday break, so that might refocus them as they start the new year.

Barcelona is on 39 points and Real Madrid is on 37 points, but the schism between these two and the next two looks to be a trend rather than a blip on the radar.  Sevilla is on 30 points, and Valencia is on 29 points.  There are twenty-three matches remaining, and both these teams have the capability of slashing this rift.  On any single match day, they can defeat anyone in Europe.  It may be presumptuous to declare Sevilla and Valencia as pretenders for La Liga, but until they show their mettle on the pitch for a string of games, a top-two finish for either of these teams appears unlikely.