Real Sociedad Set to Return to Champions League After Years of Struggle


Last season, Athletic Bilbao were in the spotlight thanks to their outstanding Europa League campaign, when they upset Manchester United in the last-32 before losing the final against Atletico Madrid. However, eventually their European efforts compromised their chances to finish in the top-four in La Liga and consequently denied them the chance to play in the following Champions League.

Nearly 12 months since then, Bilbao’s season has been an unmitigated disaster while another Basque team, Real Sociedad, are flying high and dreaming of qualification to the biggest European stage eleven years after their last appearance.

Back in the eighties, La Real were one of the greatest teams in Spain, winning two consecutive titles (1981 and 1982) and a Copa del Rey (1987), with plenty of their players (goalkeeper Luis Arconada, defender Albero Gorriz, midfielders Perico Alonso, José María Bakero, Txiki Beguiristain and Jesús María Zamora and forward Jesús María Satrústegui) also playing in the national team during that decade.

Despite those achievements, from the late eighties the club experienced a lengthy downward spiral – apart from a third place finish in 1998 and a surprising second place finish in 2003 behind Zinedine Zidane-inspired Real Madrid. Otherwise, they were struggling anonymously in the middle of the table, far away from the lofty places of the golden era. Moreover, in 2007 Real Sociedad were relegated in Segunda Division and it took three years before they returned to La Liga.

The dark spell seemed to continue after promotion – last two seasons they finished 15th and 12th  respectively – and French coach Philippe Montanier was often criticized for Real’s erratic performances.  He had been on the verge of resigning or even being sacked but eventually he retained his place.

After a slow start this season, Real Sociedad have done an extraordinary U-turn and now are likely to finish fourth having defeated Valencia last Sunday.  With a margin of five points between them and the closest rivals – the aforementioned Valencia and Malaga – only a catastrophe during the last five games could deny a return to Europe’s elite.

With a limited budget, a large number of players raised through the youth system, and almost the same squad as the past season, the resurgence of Real Sociedad would mean that in the modern football there is still space for fairytales.

So, what is the secret? A lot of factors have influenced: surely the players - 14 of them are younger than 26 - have gained experience and playing together for long time might have created the winning formula as a team. But you cannot deny the improvement shown from key figures such as Chilean goalkeeper Carlos Bravo,  Carlos Martinez and Iñigo Martinez at the back, Asier Ilarramendi and captain Xavi Prieto in midfield. Although the biggest betterment was shown from the forward trio.

With a game based on quick bursts forward (according to the side have the highest number of goals from counterattacks, alongside Real Madrid and Espanyol) the speed of  Mexican Carlos Vela and the flair of Frenchman Antoine Griezmann have made the difference on the flanks. Vela, a former Arsenal player, found himself more suited to La Liga rather than Premier League, having netted 12 times last season and already reached 13 goals in the current campaign. While the 22-year-old Griezmann is a dazzling left-footed talent whose unpredictability and technique should not pass unnoticed to scouts from bigger clubs.

Between the wide attackers, Imanol Agirretxe occupies the centre-forward role and his contribution has been significant. He proved to be a good finisher scoring perhaps the most important goal of the season, the one which cost Barcelona their first defeat this season at Anoeta. Since that match in January, La Real have performed better and better, reaching 15 matches unbeaten - the longest run in La Liga at moment. If the tournament ends without any losses, Real Sociedad will outdo Barcelona’s streak of 19 undefeated games.

You can follow me on Twitter @JuriGobbini

Posted in: Analysis, Spain

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