La Real back on track

Returning to Champions League action for the first time in almost a decade Real Sociedad experienced the lows, but barely any of the highs, of Europe’s premier club competition. That they got there in the first place was a surprise to many as a rampant La Real enjoyed a storming second half of last season to finish fourth in La Liga.

There was a play-off tie against Lyon to negotiate first, but the Basque side comfortably overcame the seasoned Champions League campaigners, winning 2-0 in each of the two legs against the French side. The group stage draw marked the moment when it all went horribly wrong as La Real found themselves up against Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayer Leverkusen.

From the opener against Shakhtar, La Real’s naivity was exposed. They matched their more experienced opponents, with star forward Antoine Griezmann impressive as the Basques created numerous chances. They failed to take any of them, however, and were cruelly punished when Shakhtar took advantage of poor defending to score two second-half goals to kill the game. The pattern was repeated with a stoppage time sucker-punch against Leverkusen and La Real never recovered.

Defeat to all three opponents at the halfway stage provided a rude awakening to La Real, whose Champions League adventure was over almost before it had begun. With a solitary point from a goalless draw against United at Anoeta and a single goal scored against 10 conceded, Jagoba Arrasate’s men limped away from the group without even the consolation of a Europa League place.

Arrasate stepped up to the top job at Anoeta, replacing Philippe Montanier at the beginning of this season, having been the Frenchman’s number two. The new man’s troubles were compounded as his side’s miserable form in Europe was mirrored by poor results in La Liga. An opening day 2-0 home win over Getafe was followed by an eight-game winless sequence that saw La Real slumbering 12th in October with just 10 points from nine games.

Champions League elimination triggered a stark change in fortunes. Sunday’s 2-0 derby win over Athletic Bilbao was the latest in a run of five consecutive victories, leaving the San Sebastian side fifth, within a point of the Champions League places and well-placed to fight for a chance to do better at the higher level next season.

Real Sociedad undoubtedly over-achieved last season and did not spend big in the summer, opting instead to trust in talented youngsters such as Ruben Pardo, seen as a long-term replacement for Asier Illarramendi. Arrasate has also continued to rely on last season’s stars, players like Griezmann and Inigo Martinez, who worked under him at youth level. The emergence of Griezmann as a consistent goalscorer, with 12 to his name this season, has been crucial to their return to form.

As he contemplates Thursday’s Copa del Rey tie against Villarreal, Arrasate will be making no assumptions about his side’s ability to over achieve again. The season is only half over and the table could look very different in May.

Follow Mike Barnes on Twitter: @MikeBarnes1960