Spain’s northern soul

Anoeta has not been a happy hunting ground for Barcelona in recent seasons and they endured another miserable trip there on Saturday as Real Sociedad put in a superb team performance to cause more grief for Tata Martino. The Basque side beat Barca 3-2 in the corresponding fixture last season and this latest defeat ensured the Catalans left San Sebastian empty-handed for the third time in four years.

Having given a master class in high pressing and close passing at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City in the Champions League, Barca struggled to make any impact on the game against La Real who, without the burden of household names and the weight of expectation, fully deserved their win and could easily have added to it. Coach Jagoba Arrasate rightly insisted that it was his side’s strong performance that beat Barcelona, rather than the Catalans’ poor display.

Arrasate should also be praised for fielding such an attacking line-up against the champions and his front three formed a potent striking unit. Sergio Canales was a constant thorn in Barca’s side while Carlos Vela and Antoine Griezmann posed real threat going forward. Canales created La Real’s first for Gorka Elustondo, Vela set up Griezmann for his 15th of the season and finally the Frenchman put David Zurutuza through for the third.

Back in October, Barcelona dropped their first points of the season when they visited Pamplona and were held to a goalless draw by struggling Osasuna. Perennial battlers against relegation, the men from the Navarra region have recovered to a mid-table position and on Sunday their rampant first-half display earned them a resounding 3-0 win over title contenders Atletico Madrid at El Sadar.

Even allowing for Diego Simeone’s rotation policy, it was an impressive display by Javi Gracia’s men, with Alvaro Cejudo, Emiliano Armenteros and Roberto Torres all on target in a frantic first half performance. Simeone insisted that the only reason for the defeat was that Osasuna were the better side on the night and not that he had made changes to his starting XI. Gracia’s priority will remain to avoid relegation, but he can take some comfort from being closer to seventh-placed Valencia than to the drop zone.

The Basque revival this season has also been strongly in evidence at Athletic Bilbao, where Ernesto Valverde has turned a mood of pessimism into optimism. The former Athletic striker has taken the positives from his predecessor Marcelo Bielsa – high octane, one touch, aggressive pressing football – and mixed it with a more subtle and effective management style. Adding defensive stability to an essentially attacking side, Valverde has brought a spark back to Athletic.

La Real, Osasuna and Athletic have collectively taken seven points from Barcelona this season and could well have a say in the destination of the Spanish title. At the same time, with La Real and Athletic fighting it out for a Champions League berth, this very distinctive part of the country is making a real impact on Spain’s footballing success.