Atletico Madrid battles Athletic Bilbao for 4th place in Spain and last Champions League berth

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With Real Madrid cruising to the Spanish league title, the focus shifts to the battle for fourth place and the final Champions League berth.

Atletico Madrid hosts Athletic Bilbao on Saturday in a game that could go a long way to deciding which goes to Europe’s elite competition next season.

Atletico holds fourth place, but Diego Simeone’s side has only a three-point advantage over Athletic in fifth with six games remaining.

“Our big goal is to finish in the top four in La Liga,” Atletico defender Stefan Savic said this week. “We have an important game against a rival for the fourth Champions League berth. We know how important the match is and I am sure we will play a great game and take the three points at home.”

Athletic has not played in the Champions League since the 2014-15 season, while Atletico is a regular participant.

Athletic, a team that fields players only from or near Spain’s northern Basque Country region, is enjoying its best campaign in years. It ended a four-decade wait for a major title when it won the Copa del Rey this month.

“Saturday’s game at Atletico Madrid is a final, for us,” Athletic midfielder Iñigo Galarreta said. “This team wants to end the season well and we have an exciting challenge ahead.”

Girona, in third, is seven points clear of Atletico before it plays at Las Palmas also on Saturday.


Madrid opened a commanding 11-point lead over second-placed Barcelona after winning the clasico 3-2 last weekend in the capital. Now it can fully focus on its Champions League semifinal with Bayern Munich next week.

Madrid visits Real Sociedad on Friday without its leading scorer, Jude Bellingham, who has a stomach issue.

“We need seven points to make mathematically sure of La Liga and we want to take those as quickly as possible,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said.

Ancelotti said forward Rodrygo was also battling the flu, but he was in the squad.

Barcelona plays Valencia on Monday after coach Xavi Hernández reversed his decision to leave the club this summer and committed to finishing his contract through the end of next season.


AP soccer:

Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press