The France international, who was all set to move to Anfield in 2018, is arguably the best player in La Liga not playing for Real Madrid

This year, La Liga looks different. Champions Atletico Madrid are down in fifth, Barcelona have only just clawed their way back into the top four and Real Betis sit an impressive and unlikely third.

The Andalusians are aiming to reach the Champions League for the first time since they managed it in 2005, where they earned a 1-0 win over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea but still suffered group-stage elimination.

The key figure behind Betis’ rise this season is playmaker Nabil Fekir, who has finally hit the stunning form he showed in France with Lyon – which almost earned him a move to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the summer of 2018.

It was a bittersweet period for the French midfielder, who became a World Cup winner in Russia with his country but saw the Liverpool switch disintegrate at the final hurdle.

There were reports that it was because of a knee issue found during his medical, but Fekir has since blamed his representative at the time for scuppering the deal, admitting it was a “dark” time for him.

In 2019, he moved to Betis for around €20 million (£17m/$23m), less than a third of the fee Liverpool almost paid for him, so it appeared the Sevilla-based side had secured a bargain.

However, while his first two campaigns were sporadically bright, he did not consistently hit the heights expected of him. Until now.

Under Manuel Pellegrini, the 28-year-old has blossomed into the thrilling player he always threatened to be and was rewarded for his form with a new contract in January, lasting until 2026.

“He is a great player,” said Real Betis president Angel Haro. “I won’t dare to say he is the best player in the league but he is crucial for us. To watch him play is a spectacle.

“We want him to stay with us for many years. What has to come, will come, but right now our intention is that he stays. He has a €100m (£83m/$113m) release clause.

“It doesn’t worry me, I think that it’s good that big clubs are following him. We’ve just renewed his deal and we want him to stay with us here for many years.”

While Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema might be the frontrunners for La Liga’s player of the season award, outside of leaders Real Madrid, there have been no better players than Fekir this season.

The midfielder has netted nine goals in 30 games across all competitions, adding eight assists, and is the creative fulcrum in Betis’ exciting attack, ably accompanied by the likes of Sergio Canales and Juanmi.

Fekir recently hit a century of appearances for the club and sported the captain’s armband in their 2-1 win at Rayo Vallecano in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg.

The second leg follows in March, and is part of a three-pronged Betis assault this season. They are aiming to seal Champions League qualification, while also doing battle in the Europa League, beating Zenit St Petersburg 3-2 on Thursday night in Russia.

Fekir was suspended after picking up a red card in the group phase because of a clash with Bayer Leverkusen’s Kerem Demirbay. It has been his only misstep this season.

“Nabil is a footballer with a strong character with a lot of personality,” said Betis captain Joaquin. “Nerves and the tension have got the better of him.”

His manager sympathised, having seen Fekir take kick after kick from defenders who cannot handle him.

“It’s a disgrace how the referees treat Nabil,” Pellegrini grumbled in December.

Fekir’s exciting displays and swashbuckling dribbles have drawn plenty of interest from elsewhere in La Liga.

Alaves winger Luis Rioja even had to apologise to his club’s supporters after swapping shirts with him following a 4-0 defeat, in which Fekir laid on a goal for Juanmi.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have been linked by Sport with a €60m (£50m/$68m) euro summer move for Fekir, if they cannot sign Erling Haaland next summer.

“Fekir is worth a Champions League spot,” ran a recent headline in the newspaper, which is something the Catalans aren’t certain of securing themselves this season.

The left-footed attacking midfielder would certainly add spark to a Barcelona team that has lacked it, as well as offering set-piece expertise.

Fekir scored a brace against Levante last weekend, including a spectacular free-kick.

Earlier in January, he scored directly from a corner kick against bitter local rivals Sevilla, the ball viciously arcing over goalkeeper Alfonso Pastor for a gol Olimpico.

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However, the most likely outcome is that he stays with Betis, quite possibly in the Champions League. The team have won eight of their last 10 games, losing only once to in-form Villarreal.

“From the first day I’ve felt in love with this club, with the fans, the city and the people,” said Fekir upon renewing his deal. “They say I am a genius, but I only know how to play football and enjoy it.”

His football alone makes Betis’ games worth watching, and after an enforced rest against Zenit, he will be back in the side and raring to go as they welcome Real Mallorca to the Benito Villamarin on Sunday.

Fekir got a taste of elite European football at Lyon and if his Liverpool switch had come off in 2018, he would have been a fixture on the biggest stage over the past four years.

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