Tuesday September 17 represents a rather momentous achievement for Real Sociedad, as they begin only their second ever season in the Champions League group stage.
Their last outing came precisely a decade ago in the 2003-04 season and, after multiple years in relative obscurity, including a spell in the Segunda Division, they have come full-circle to pit themselves against some of Europe’s best sides.
Under the stewardship of Philippe Montanier, La Real upset the odds as they finished fourth in La Liga last term, a feat largely helped by an incredible run which saw them suffer just two defeats in 28 matches. After starting with a 2-1 win at Malaga on November 10, 2012, the streak stretched all the way until the end of the season.
Much has been made of their achievement, but the chatter has to stop somewhere. While they have done magnificently to reach the group stage, the hard work begins in earnest and they have not been given a particularly straightforward group to traverse.
Manchester United will lead the way as many peoples’ favourites in Group A, but Bayer Leverkusen and Tuesday’s visitors Shakhtar Donetsk represent worthy foes in their own right. New Coach Jagoba Arrasate could have a veritable baptism of fire on his hands.
In the weekend’s 0-0 draw at Levante Arrasate named a team verging on the strongest available and it would be a surprise to see many changes on Tuesday night, but Haris Seferovic should return to the starting XI after being given a rest.
With Carlos Vela and Antoine Griezmann set to flank the Swiss forward, Arrasate has a brilliantly-dynamic front three. In the play-off against Lyon they proved to be highly interchangeable, causing the French side countless problems.
Their opponents on Tuesday, Shakhtar Donetsk, will be an interesting prospect. Mircea Lucescu’s side attracted much praise for their exuberant and adventurous football last season before their round of 16 defeat by Borussia Dortmund, but at face value, their current side includes a lot of new faces.
Willian moved to Anzhi Makhachkala and then on to Chelsea, while Fernandinho and Henrik Mkhitaryan left for Manchester City and Dortmund, respectively. In came the likes of Bernard, Fernando, Fred and Facundo Ferreyra to compensate, but they do not appear to be completely clicking just yet after failing to win their last three League games.
Shakhtar’s weakest area has generally been their defence in recent years. The Ukrainian Premier League’s rules demand that no more than seven foreign players be in the same team at once, meaning the club often looked to South American talent for their attackers, while homegrown defenders make up the numbers.
Real will be well aware of captain Darijo Srna’s rampaging runs down the right and that area could be key. If Griezmann can exploit the Croatian’s attacking nature, they should have no problem with finding the net.
But can their defence stifle Shakhtar’s talented frontline of Brazilians? That will be their biggest test.