NB--I had written this before our draw with Celta today; it doesn't really affect the analysis.
Villarreal's 52 points from 26 matches has them 11 ahead of both Sevilla and Celta in the race for fourth place, and only two points behind Real Madrid. A Champions League spot is closer, though not yet there for the Submarine.
Historically, the fifth-placed team in La Liga has had around 62-65 points. There have been exceptions: last year, Sevilla had 76, 16 points ahead of Villarreal in sixth; and when Villarreal last qualified for the CL, in 2010-11, the two clubs in fifth place had 58 points (we had 62).
Looking at our remaining schedule, we have matches against Celta and Sevilla, but even if we lose those, we have four winnable home matches against Las Palmas, Getafe, Real Sociedad and Deportivo; if we won those four but got no other points, we'd have 64.
That might be enough anyhow since both Sevilla and Celta are on pace to end up with 60 points after 38 matches, given they have 41 now. Unless one of those two teams gets hot, it's hard to see them overtaking us on 64 points. (Sevilla have played better after the first month of the season, but still haven't found a way to win on the road). And the way Villarreal is playing, who's to say we won't do a lot better than 64? This Villarreal team doesn't strike me as a team that wants to back into anything.
The next few weeks will be important--Celta on Wednesday, Las Palmas (home) on Saturday, Sevilla the following Sunday, with two matches against Bayer Leverkusen in between. Getting something from the Celta and Sevilla matches--even a draw, not a win--would be great. And picking up another win at home would further cement our lead.
Remember too that like us, Sevilla are in the EL round of 16 (they face Basel) so have some of the same squad rotation issues we face. And depending on what happens, they could well feel their best chance to get into the CL would be to win the EL again. Celta have the luxury of not being in Europe, but to be honest their recent form doesn't suggest they will make a big run at the end of the year.
Third is a lot better than fourth, because you are guaranteed to get into the CL (no playoff round needed) and there's a greater share of the TV revenues in the CL for the third team from La Liga than the fourth one.
All the stories coming out of Madrid after their loss to Atleti do seem to indicate a team in some crisis in the dressing room and in the board room. Team chemistry is definitely not right, and injuries are affecting them for sure (the latest being Karim Benzema's hamstring injury, which may keep him out of action for several weeks).
But "crisis" is all relative, of course: two points a match as a Villarreal coach gets you celebrated as a genius; two points a match as a Real Madrid coach gets you fired!! Let's not forget, Madrid have only lost this season to Sevilla, Barcelona, Villarreal, and Atleti, and are on course for the final eight of the Champions League.
The concern for Madrid might be that most of their remaining home matches are against better teams that try to compete with them in the Bernabeu--Sevilla, Villarreal, Valencia, Eibar, Celta, so five wins are not totally assured.
However, their away matches aren't especially tough either; except for the clasico, they have four matches against teams in the bottom third of the table remaining (Levante, Las Palmas, Rayo, Getafe) and two against midtable sides, Real Sociedad--who are playing well at the moment--and Depor, who aren't.
My guess is Madrid won't drop enough points to give us a decent shot at third, but isn't it wonderful that we are even talking about it? Quite a tribute to this Villarreal side, who continue to impress and set team records for success each week! Endavant Villarreal!!