Will Champions League Football Be Good or Bad for Real Sociedad?
When Imanol Agirretxe raced through against Valencia at the end of April with Real Sociedad leading 3-2 at Anoeta, many expected him to head to the corner. That wouldn't have been in keeping with the La Real way last season, though, and instead, Agirretxe produced a sumptuous chip over Diego Alves, described by The Guardian's Sid Lowe as dropping "so slowly, so smoothly, so softly, it was like he was playing in slippers."
It didn't just seal three points. It practically assured Sociedad of their place in the coming season's Champions League—even if they did have to wait until the last day for confirmation. The nature of that win over Los Che—fast, exciting goals—has been a common occurrence for the side from San Sebastian. When they'd previously visited Valencia they won 5-2, Barcelona were beaten 3-2, Malaga 4-2 and Rayo Vallecano were smashed 4-0.
There was a lot to admire about the Basque side last year, but, presuming they make it through the Champions League qualifiers—if not they'll have the Europa League anyway—how are they likely to juggle European and domestic football?
Things haven't got off to the best start. Manager Philippe Montanier has already returned to France with Rennes—David Cartlidge details how he was never really shown any great faith by Sociedad on football-espana—to be replaced by his assistant, Jagoba Arrasate. Arrasate knows the club well, having worked in Zubieta, the club's academy, before his first-team role, but it's never easy to judge a change of management.
Asier Illarramendi's departure to Real Madrid is obviously unwanted too—despite the hefty sum received. The 23-year-old was a pivotal part of the club's style last season, shielding the back four and excelling at the fast transitions so often demonstrated between defense and attack.
What La Real do benefit from is a young squad. Ion Ansotegi, at 31, is their oldest player, followed by goalkeepers Claudio Bravo and Enaut Zubikarai, who are 30 and 29 respectively. Xabi Prieto, their captain, is 29, while Inigo Martinez and Antoine Griezmann, both 22, and Carlos Vela, 24, have all shown glimpses of star potential.
Another positive is that they don't rely on one man to score their goals. Vela top scored with 14 in the league last season, but Agirretxe (13), Griezmann (10), Prieto (nine) and Gonzalo Castro (seven) all contributed to the cause. Even defenders Martinez (four) and Alberto De la Bella (three) helped too.
Question marks will be raised over the club's ability to compete midweek in Europe, and then return to La Liga in top form the following weekend. To add depth, promising Swiss striker Haris Seferovic has already been signed, and left-back Jose Angel will spend another season on loan from Roma. Elsewhere, Barcelona's Jonathan Dos Santos is likely to link up with the club for the coming season, via football-espana.net.
Despite these signings, the quality of their depth, particularly in central defense, could potentially lead to problems if the amount of matches begins to take its toll. However, in Ruben Pardo, who is just 20 years old, they have an exciting Illarra replacement, and in Vela, Griezmann, Prieto, Castro and Agirretxe they have match-winners in abundance.
To repeat their feat of finishing in the top four will be tough, but it would have been tough whether they were in Europe or not. The riches the competition will provide their young players will be valuable for seasons to come, Sociedad will just hope that they are the ones who feel the benefit of it.
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