It was not going to plan. In fact, it all started going wrong after just six minutes of play. Real Madrid, without anything else to play for but pride, found an early goal through Gonzalo Higuain. Then, just over 10 minutes into the second half Jose Maria Callejon scored. Two goals down and with Valencia winning over at the Mestalla, Real Sociedad’s Champions League hopes were fast fading.
But then, reprieve. Carlos Martinez, as industrious as ever down the right flank, sent in a cross that struck Sami Khedira’s flailing arm in the box. Penalty. Up stepped Xabi Prieto who dispatched it with aplomb and Real were back in it. Hope was seeping back again and the home crowd sensed it.
It was nothing less than they deserved, too. Up to that point, the hosts were the better side, playing confident football and creating chances aplenty. Madrid’s lead on the scoreboard did not at all reflect what was occurring on the field.
With the supporters urging on their side from the stands, Philippe Montanier’s men pushed forward with real purpose. They continued to create chances and outplay their more illustrious opponents. There was still plenty of time to level matters and, perhaps, even claim all three points. On the balance of play, they warranted no less.
Antoine Griezmann, Diego Ifran and Imanol Agirretxe spurred chances, but, eventually the equaliser came. Making amends for his previous attempt, it was Griezmann who provided it. As he did throughout, Martinez was proving a real nuance to the visitors and it was his telling cross that found the Frenchman at the back post who had but the simplest of finishes to make.
Despite the momentum that by now was all in favour of Real, in devastatingly quick fashion the capital side struck against the run of play again. Khedira found his compatriot, Mesut Ozil, whose delightful return pass sent him through on goal and he classily dinked it over Claudio Bravo. It was all of two minutes after Griezmann’s leveller. The score had swung back Madrid’s way. The home crowd again silenced. Hope was fading away, again.
But, Montanier’s men are made of sterner stuff. This is a team, after all, that after 11 rounds of the season were sitting fourth from bottom. Few expected them to recover. Even fewer, if anyone, expected them to be fighting for Champions League football come the business end of the season. But here they were.
And so they fought on valiantly. They were not going to let their heads drop, even though they would have been told that over at the Mestalla Valencia – equal with them on points for fourth – were leading against Granada. It was all going against them.
Their captain, Prieto, led by example and almost headed his side equal with a powerful effort that Diego Lopez – not for the first time on the night – was equal to. A chance then fell to Griezmann while Agirretxe was getting closer. Into injury time and Agirretxe got really close and, unmarked on the six-yard box, really should have done better with his header. But, he missed.
With time ticking away, Martinez sent in a deep cross and Agirretxe was there to loop it back across goal and Prieto, by hook and by crook, did the rest. It was all-square again. Real Sociedad’s unbeaten home run kept intact. But, more importantly, their hopes for Champions League qualification were to, if only just.
Unfortunately for La Real however, Valencia went on to beat Granada. Roberto Soldado was the hero of the night, scoring just after the hour mark to give his side a priceless win in their quest for a top-four finish. It was hardly an entertaining affair and, to be frank, was downright boring. Though the visitors headed into the match not entirely clear of relegation, they displayed a complete lack of urgency. Los Che, meanwhile, were not at their best either. But, neither side will care. With results going Granada’s way, they secured their top-flight status while Valencia’s win has put them in the driving seat for a return to Europe’s premier competition.
Still harbouring hopes for European football themselves next year, Malaga got back to winning ways after going three winless rounds. In what was an emotionally-charged atmosphere with Manuel Pellegrini leading his side out for the last time at La Rosaleda, Javier Saviola, Julio Baptista and Isco – also likely making his last home appearance – got the goals in a 3-1 victory over Deportivo. A superior head to head with Betis means that Malaga only need to draw to secure sixth, with Europa League football already assured for next season, that is, if UEFA do not uphold their ban.