The English champions visit the smaller La Liga club who were supposed to showcase Spain's strength in depth. Tim Stannard on Real Sociedad vs Manchester United...
For those who love their Spanish football, Real Sociedad qualifying for the Champions League and then striding into the group stages was an opportunity to proudly show off to the world. It was to be an example of La Liga's genuine strength in depth outside of they-who-must-not-be-named and Atlético Madrid. Sadly, that hope has not exactly gone to plan so far, but that could change in Anoeta on Tuesday night.
For the previous year, a fairly small squad of largely homegrown talent had entertained the masses throughout the year and had been rewarded with a fourth-placed finish on the final day of the season.
The San Sebastian side were such fun to watch throughout the season as the team seemed to play all styles of football from big wellies up the pitch to speedy counter-attacks to carefully constructed efforts through the midfield hub of Asier Illarramendi and Xabi Prieto.
Unfortunately, La Real's opportunity to strut its funky football stuff on a bigger stage has brought three European defeats from three, with the latest loss at Old Trafford in a clash the supporters were desperately looking forward to. Sadly, the game ended all too quickly as a contest due to a very early own goal from Iñigo Martínez.
The run in Europe coincided with - or perhaps caused - a sluggish start in the league, with the club struggling for confidence under new manager Jagoba Arrasate. Previous boss Philippe Montanier turned down the chance of a new contract - which seemed to have been handed over with some reluctance by a peculiar club president - and returned to his native French league.
Luckily though, Real Sociedad are now looking in much better shape having picked up 10 points from 12 in the league. The most recent result was a five-goal drubbing of Osasuna and it really does appear to have the locals thinking they have a chance of putting one over glamorous visitors Manchester United on Tuesday.
To manage this, highly-talented but extremely fickle left-wing merchant Antoine Griezmann needs to continue his fine form, including five goals in three games and a free-kick against the Old Trafford crossbar. A footballer who runs on madness and confidence, Griezmann thinks this is quite possible, promising that “we want to show that we can win games in the Champions League.”
The buzz is shared by a boss coaching in la Primera and Europe for the first time. “If we get close to our best that we can beat this Manchester United side,” enthused Arrasate, who thinks a win can help keep La Real in the tournament.
The match isn't just a huge occasion for the supporters in what should be a sell-out but for the footballers too, with the English team still being an enormous name in Spain. “It's the dream of every player who has been here a long time at the club,” said Carlos Martínez. "We want this to be a match to remember."
Manchester United will still be a cut above La Real if they play at a reasonably good standard, but if they're even a tad sluggish then the English champions may face a similar experience to their last trip to the Basque Country, which ended up with a famous win to Athletic Bilbao. It really was grim up north for the English side on that occasion. It could be the same again on Tuesday night against a definite pride of Spain.
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