Six years is a long time. In 2007, the first ever iPhone had just been announced, Liverpool were in the Champions League final and Real Sociedad were relegated from La Liga. How times can change. Nowadays the iPhone is on its fifth generation, memories of the Champions League are distant for Liverpool fans and Real Sociedad are in the Champions League.
However, it’s not as if Real Sociedad are newcomers to Europe’s top club competition. In the 2002-03 season the Txuri-Urdin almost won the league title, only to be pipped at the post by Real Madrid. The second-placed finish was a huge achievement for a Real Sociedad side that had finished in 13th place for the last three seasons, and granted them a place in the Champions League. This was thanks in no small part to the brilliant performances of a youthful Xabi Alonso, a deadly striking combination in Nihat and Kovacevic, as well as a famous 4-2 win against Los Blancos at the Anoeta stadium.
Whether ‘second season syndrome’ exists is debatable, but what is certain is that Real Sociedad struggled with the demands of an extra competition the next season. Dropping out at the round of 16, having lost 2-0 on aggregate to a Lyon side which included the likes of Essien, Malouda and Sydney Govou, the team from San Sebastián sunk to 15th place in La Liga. In the two seasons that followed they came 14th and 16th, until they were finally relegated in 2007.
But this year the roles were reversed. After a brilliant season in which Real Sociedad were La Liga’s surprise package, finishing in fourth place (see my La Liga season review), they came up against none other than Lyon in the qualifiers.
Although this was hardly a grudge match for Real Sociedad (the only player who had been in the squad for the tie in 2004 and remained was Xabi Prieto), they made their superiority felt. Two exquisite goals in the first leg from Griezmann and star signing Seferović, as well as a brace from Carlos Vela in the home tie meant that the Txuri-Urdin were back in Europe, and fans were ecstatic.
Rewind a few weeks however, and the feeling among the Anoeta faithful was not so positive. Having lost influential coach Phillipe Montanier to Rennes, many were unsure what to expect of assistant manager-turned head coach Jagoba Arrasate. Fortunately for fans of both football and Real Sociedad, the attractive football that made followers of La Liga sit up and take notice last year continues to be implemented under the homegrown Arrasate. Esteban Granero, formerly of Real Madrid, was signed on loan from QPR to cover for the absence of Illarramendi, whilst promising Swiss hotshot Haris Seferović was captured from Fiorentina.
Seferović is perhaps the last piece of the jigsaw for this brilliant side. For all of Agirretxe’s qualities, the Swiss offers a more mobile threat, and will cause defences in Europe all sorts of problems. The striker was another of whom many were unsure what to expect. Seferović was the star of the U19 World Cup in 2009, eclipsing the likes of Neymar and Isco in the process, but since then has found his career at a crossroads, similar to Carlos Vela when he joined the Basque team. Nonetheless, Seferović is only 21 years old, and has started his career at Real Sociedad brightly, scoring 4 goals in a friendly, that goal against Lyon and an audacious chip on the first day of La Liga. Not bad for someone whose career needed ‘salvaging’ according to some.
Real Sociedad have the ability to make waves in Europe this season as the ‘hipsters’ team. Although it will be a very tough ask to progress, it is not impossible. Manchester United haven’t been impressive so far this season, whilst Moyes is inexperienced when it comes to the Champions League. Leverkusen and Shakhtar are obviously both good sides, but neither is invincible. Don’t be surprised if Real Sociedad scrape through to the knockout rounds in 2nd place.
After a summer in which many of La Liga’s top sides lost their best players, La Real also have the ability to finish in a European spot. Malaga are an almost completely different side following the exodus from La Rosaleda this summer, Valencia have lost Soldado and Sevilla have lost their two best players in Navas and Negredo. Helder Postiga has had a fine start at Valencia, but question marks remain in other positions. The interesting project that Sevilla embarked on, meanwhile, has so far yielded zero wins after three games, despite a spirited performance against Barcelona last night. Real Sociedad meanwhile, have a settled squad with bags of ability. It is time to take advantage.