Can anyone challenge Barcelona, Real Madrid in Liga F?

The gruelling Spanish Liga F season is now over — almost a month later than when the English Women’s Super League drew to a close on May 18 due to having four fewer teams — and it was no surprise to see Barcelona and Real Madrid finish in the top two.

Barcelona (88) wrapped up their fifth Spanish title with plenty of time to spare in early May and only dropped two points (against Levante) all season. Their closest rivals, Real Madrid (73), did not mount much of a challenge and failed to surpass the 75 points they managed last campaign, but still finished second by a clear 12 points.

The race for third place, and the league’s final spot in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, was more open. Atlético Madrid (61) eventually did enough to pip Levante (60) to return to Europe’s top club competition after three seasons away, yet the gap in quality between the top five, which also includes independent side Madrid CFF (50) — and could perhaps add Athletic Club (50, with one game left) as they surpassed expectations this season — and the rest remains.

With former champions Atlético, Levante and Madrid CFF establishing themselves as potential European contenders, the battle to be the third-best team in Spain could be intriguing next year. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Madrid’s premier team at the start of the professional era — having taken the mantle from an all-conquering Rayo Vallecano side that fell into obscurity after 2011 — Atlético worked themselves into a position of safety upon their promotion to the top tier in 2006 and built from there.

Indeed, it was Atlético who kept Barcelona from the title for three straight seasons between 2016 and 2019. But it has been five long years since they lifted the crown, and the rise of Real Madrid (after their merger with CD Tacon in 2020) increased professionalisation in Spain and gave Atlético some stiff competition.

As a result, Atlético have stumbled over the last three seasons, cycling through managers at a rate rarely seen in women’s football. Since the end of the 2018-19 season, Las Rojiblancas have changed managers seven times, notably cycling through three during the truncated 2019-20 season. And, as the managers have changed, key players have also looked for the exit door as the team’s form has wobbled.

It was enough to secure three fourth-place finishes before this season, and now a return to the UWCL awaits under Óscar Fernández after they beat relegation-threatened Villarreal 1-0 on the final matchday. But things aren’t necessarily going to be rosy for Atlético next season with reports that Ludmila, Sheila Guijarro, Leicy Santos and Eva Navarro (who scored 28 goals between them this season) will be departing the club this summer, signalling yet more player turnover and issues to work out.

Finishing third four times in the previous five years (except for a slip to sixth in 2021-22), there are few clubs around Europe who would have been as happy to see the expansion of the UWCL to include the third-placed team from Europe’s top six leagues from 2021. This season they ended up fourth — though thrashed Madrid CFF 3-0 on the final matchday to finish 10 points clear.

Having established themselves as the biggest team outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid in recent seasons, Levante have remained competitive since their first season in the top flight (under original name San Vicente, before becoming Levante UD in 1998). And although they have resembled something of a feeder club in recent years, they have seen plenty of noteworthy Spanish players through their doors such as Alexia Putellas, Vanesa Gimbert, Adriana Martín and Ona Batlle.

A key part of Levante’s ability to compete with the best in Spain this decade is their ability to score goals, whether distributed across the entire attack or owing to a single Golden Boot chaser. In years past, that burden has fallen to forwards like Laura Del Rio, Pamela Conti, Alexia, Charlyn Corral and Esther González, with Alba Redondo (16 goals in 26 league games) currently leading the charge. But that also means as soon as a star forward leaves the club, the team have to look elsewhere for those all-important goals. And following Mayra Ramírez‘s then-world record €450,000 transfer to Chelsea in January, it appears Redondo will be next to leave in the summer.

The issues for Levante don’t end there however, with the club in a precarious financial position that has seen the women’s budget cut to help keep them from going under. Although the funds from Ramírez’s move to Chelsea were funnelled back into the women’s side, there is a clear question over what the coming seasons will look like in Buñol, how many players Levante will have to part with, and whether they can remain at the top end of the table after doing so.

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Spanish seasons are long (there are 16 teams, unlike most other women’s leagues in Europe that have 12) and leave little room for error, but Madrid CFF consistently punch above their weight thanks to savvy signings and good old-fashioned gumption.

Only founded ahead of the 2010-11 season and in just their seventh season in the top tier, Madrid CFF often have to look off the beaten track for their signings, but like many independent teams around women’s football, they get by with a strong team ethic.

Madrid CFF have mixed it with the European challengers this season, knocking on the door of a Champions League berth, but the independent team from the Spanish capital consistently struggle to make good on their mid-season form and usually finish a step behind the rest. That was case again this campaign as they were within a point of third spot with 10 games to go, but ended up 10 behind.

Like Levante, they lost a star player midway through the season when NWSL side Bay FC paid a world record €735,000 to sign Zambia international Racheal Kundananji in February, with her compatriot Grace Chanda heading stateside to the Orlando Pride this summer too. A further worry for Madrid CFF that their spine is made up of players who are either beyond their peak years — such as 37-year-old Brazilian defender Monica and 33-year-old midfielder Karen Araya — or younger stars such as teenager midfielders Sandra Villafañe and Cristina Librán who could be snapped up by bigger clubs.

This season, Arsenal loanee Giovana Queiroz has made a huge impact, and in addition to scoring nine goals in 16 appearances since her January move, she freshened up the attack and gave Madrid CFF a renewed bite following Kundananji’s exit. But she won’t be there next season and, much like Levante and Atlético, it’s likely to be a summer of change for Madrid CFF with little to suggest the team will stop yo-yoing anytime soon.