Villarreal, Valencia and Athletic struggling in Spain

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, centre, tries to get a cross in during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Valencia at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul White)

Traditional Spanish clubs Villarreal, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao entered the season with high hopes but are just trying to stay away from the relegation zone

MADRID — Traditional Spanish clubs Villarreal, Valencia, and Athletic Bilbao entered the season with high hopes, looking to make a run against the powerful trio of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

Almost halfway through the league, they are just fighting to stay away from the relegation zone.

Athletic fired its coach last week. Villarreal did it on Monday, and Valencia is already under pressure to follow suit.

The season has been especially disappointing for Valencia and Villarreal, which were coming off great seasons. Valencia was fourth in the league and clinched a Champions League spot for the first time in six years. Villarreal finished fifth in the league for the second straight year.

Here's a close look at the struggling clubs:

VILLARREAL'S SLOW START

Villarreal didn't make many changes to the team that succeeded in recent years, and it made a terrible start this season in winning only two of its first 11 matches.

The club is just outside the relegation zone with 14 points from 15 matches.

The club fired coach Javi Calleja a day after losing 3-2 at home against Celta Vigo on Saturday.

"We were all trying to improve the team's situation, but the club has decided to make a coaching chance," Calleja said. "I respect the decision. It's sad to have to leave, but if they are making this decision, it's because they believe it's the best one for everybody."

Former player Luis Garcia Plaza, who had been coaching in Chinese soccer, is replacing Calleja. He coached Villarreal B in 2005-06.

Despite the struggles in the Spanish league, Villarreal leads its Europa League group and has reached the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey.

VALENCIA'S INCONSISTENCY

Valencia added several players after it finished fourth last season, including Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi. There were high expectations, but Valencia started even worse than Villarreal, with its first win coming after seven matches in all competitions. It needed six more games to earn a second victory.

Things started clicking and Valencia went on a three-match winning streak, but then came losses to Juventus in the Champions League and to Real Madrid in the Spanish league. It escaped defeat against Sevilla on Saturday thanks to a stoppage-time equalizer.

The team's poor performance at home against Sevilla prompted loud jeers from fans at Mestalla Stadium, and rumors that Singaporean owner Peter Lim was considering replacing coach Marcelino Garcia Toral.

"It's natural that Peter Lim has doubts. We all have doubts," the coach said. "It's what happens when you don't win. The solution is to starting winning."

Valencia is 15th in the league with 18 points. Its Champions League run ended in the group stage, where it finished behind Juventus and Manchester United.

ATHLETIC BILBAO'S INEFFECTIVENESS

Athletic also struggled last season, finishing 16th in the Spanish league. It started this season with a win, but didn't taste another until 13 games later, against lowly Huesca in the Copa del Rey.

It remains winless in the league since that opening win, with eight draws and five losses.

The Basque Country club fired Eduardo Berizzo last week after losing at Levante 3-0 in the league, a result that left the club in the relegation zone with 11 points from 14 matches.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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