While Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have all but cemented their places in next season’s Champions League, the race for the remaining berth has thrown up a surprise contender in the shape of Real Sociedad.
The Basques currently occupy fourth spot during the international break, two points clear of Valencia with 10 games still to play, and it is not hard to see where the improvement in Philippe Montanier’s men has come about.
Having struggled towards the bottom of La Liga in the first couple of months of the 2012-13 campaign, with a section of fans calling for Montanier’s head, the Txuri-urdin suddenly found their goalscoring form and in the last 18 League fixtures only Barca and Real Madrid have outscored them.
In fact, La Real hold the distinction of being the only team in the top flight with four players – Carlos Vela, Antoine Griezmann, Imanol Agirretxe and Xabi Prieto – who have scored seven goals or more to date. Uruguayan winger Chori Castro has also joined in and this quintet has scored 22 of the team’s last 25 League goals, with the former Real Mallorca winger’s scintillating form earning him a recall to Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguayan national team squad.
It is a situation that sits in sharp contrast to that at Anoeta in early November. La Real sat just one place and one point above the drop zone with three wins and a draw from the opening 10 games, having also suffered a 2-0 defeat to Segunda outfit Cordoba in a first-leg Copa del Rey tie. It was a surprise 2-1 win at Malaga proved to be a pivotal moment for Montanier’s men as from that point onward they went on an eight-match unbeaten run going into the Christmas break, which included a superb 5-2 win at Valencia that culminated in the axing of Los Che boss Mauricio Pellegrino.
It was a sequence of results that saw La Real climb into European contention and despite a 4-3 defeat to Real Madrid on the resumption of football post-winter, things have continued in much the same vein. A further 10-game unbeaten run – a 5-1 opening day reverse to Barcelona was avenged in a 3-2 triumph after being 2-0 down, with Atletico Madrid defeated for the first time at home this season – has ensured the San Sebastian club has a very real chance of gate-crashing Europe’s premier competition. It will be the first time this has happened since 2002-03, when the team finished second in La Liga under the guidance of another French Coach, Raynald Denoueix. The following year, the team progressed through to the Last 16 stage, when they were defeated by Lyon.
Despite the strikers receiving all the plaudits in recent weeks, the rest of Montanier’s squad must also take a lot of the credit. In goal, Claudio Bravo has looked as assured as ever, with Enaut Zubikarai proving to be an able deputy in his absence, while defenders Mikel Gonzalez and Inigo Martinez have shown themselves to be the equal of any central defensive partnership in the division.
Full-backs Carlos Martinez and Alberto de la Bella have also improved beyond recognition, with midfielder Asier Illaramendi surely in line for a Spain call-up if he continues to forge a reputation as one of the revelations of the season.
In many respects the latest success has been vindication for the ideas Montanier has attempted to put across to his players since being appointed in June 2011, while President Jokin Aperribay’s public support of the former Boulogne and Valenciennes boss has also been justified. The Frenchman has tried to preach the importance of playing good, passing football and the 49 goals scored to date is the highest outside the top three – just six of those coming from headers – with former Arsenal man Carlos Vela top scorer on 11. An interesting side point is that the team’s achievements so far have come without Montanier’s charges receiving a single red card this season, whilst they did see a run of eight consecutive games against opponents with a player sent off.
It has been a slow process, with a good second half to last term being negated by the poor start to this one, but the early-season criticism levelled at the Frenchman now seems a thing of the past. So much so that it is almost certain he will be offered a new contract when his current agreement runs out in June.
It has been an amazing turnaround for a club that last won the Liga title in successive seasons under Alberto Ormaetxea in 1980-81 and 1981-82. Even if those heady days are long since gone, it will still be a major achievement if Montanier was to take his team into the top four this term.