They do not have the financial might of Barcelona or Real Madrid. Not even that of Atletico Madrid; but Real Sociedad had a great season under Philippe Montanier.
The former French goalkeeper has been replaced by Jagoba Arrasate – the former assistant to Montanier. Like most teams in Spain, Sociedad too face the innate compulsion to sell their best players at the end of the season, to cope with financial disarray.
And Montanier had an inkling that the bigger teams in Europe will lure the best of the crop and his team will have to cope with the pressure of playing in Europe and then Spain. And when the efforts are segregated, the end result isn’t up to one's liking. For instance, Malaga!
Stade Rennais FC finished 13th in French league last season. While Montanier had a one-year contract at Sociedad, he has a comfortable three-year one at Rennais, which inevitably means that he has more time to mould the team to his liking.
Under the Frenchman, Sociedad had a solid midfield comprising of Illarramendi (recently bought by Real Madrid for €38.9 million), Markel and Prieto. On the flanks, Griezmann and former Arsenal starlet Vela, gave the team the balance that not many teams in Spain can dream of, especially with a shoe-string budget. Agirretxe did his job upfront, with 14 goals in the entire season.
The grit and character of Sociedad should not be overlooked and quite deservedly, did they beat Valencia to a coveted Champions League spot. The matches against the top two teams in Spain – FC Barcelona and Real Madrid – are a kind of an acid test for the rest of the 18 teams in the top division.
And it is only fair to say that Sociedad exceeded expectations. Against Barcelona, they lost their first match of the season – a resounding 5-1 victory to the Catalans. And they kept on losing every other match until November, when their record stood at played ten, won three, lost six, and drawn one.
It was then that a mini-turnaround occurred and Montanier’s men went unbeaten for the next seven matches, until the Christmas break. Their next loss was against Real Madrid in a closely contested match where the super team from Madrid scored four and Sociedad just missed a point by one goal.
Their inspirational captain Prieto scored a hat-trick, but that was it. By the end of the first round of matches, Sociedad had lost seven of the 19 matches. By the end of the tenth round, they were as low as 17th on the league table and then by the end of the first round of matches, they climbed to 9th spot.
The second round was a kind of revelation of Montanier’s men – they lost just once against Getafe. The matches against Barcelona and Real Madrid were indicators that the club had ambition and were destined for greater glory.
In the first match of the second-half, Sociedad played host to Barcelona, the team which drubbed them at the beginning of the La Liga campaign. Montanier’s men avenged the defeat by beating Barcelona, despite the Catalans securing a 2-0 lead as early as the 25th minute, courtesy of goals from Lionel Messi and Pedro.
Castro scored one just minutes before the interval and restored parity around the hour mark and in the dying moments of the match, Agirretxe sealed it with the winning goal. The match against Real Madrid, later into the campaign, was an even tougher bet.
Valencia, another contender for the fourth spot, had a relatively easier game against Granada. And as fate would have had it, Sociedad once again found themselves behind Real Madrid around the hour mark, with goals from Higuain and Callejon, but Prieto got one back, from the spot, at the beginning of the final third of the match.
Griezmann then grabbed the equaliser with just 12 minutes to go and Sociedad’s spirits soared. While it was dampened by Khedira only a couple of minutes later, the team was motivated enough to give it all they had and quite deservedly Prieto got their third and equalising goal with just moments remaining.
While Valencia won against a lowly Granada, they then had an uphill task. Eventually Sociedad held onto their one-goal lead in the final match of the season and thanks to Negredo's heroics, Valencia missed out on the coveted fourth spot, which apart from prestige also guarantees financial remunerations.
This season too, despite the loss of one of their biggest stars in Illarramendi, Sociedad began their campaign from where they stopped last season. With a sensational away win against Lyon, a team which finished third in the French league last season, the elusive Champions League football is only theirs to lose.
While they might not go all the way to win it, they might just ruffle a few feathers and spoil the party for a few teams. Watch out for the men in white and blue from Spain - they climbed from 17th to 4th in Spain and they are no push-overs!
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