Wednesday 17 February 2021

Opposition in profile: Real Sociedad

Januzaj, Januzaj, Januzaj
 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Reds were handed a difficult but compelling draw against the Spaniards of Real Sociedad in the first knockout stage of the Europa League. 
United will face the La Liga side in neutral Turin on Thursday before the return leg at Old Trafford a week later (25th February). 

Here, we take a look at all things Sociedad to get you in the mood for the resumption of our European campaign. 

Who are Le Reales?

They hail from San Sebastien, a beautiful coastal city in the Basque region of north eastern Spain, close to the border with France on the Bay of Biscay. The club, founding fathers of La Liga, have been in existence since 1909 and are one of nine clubs to have a Spanish domestic title to their name, having won the league twice in successive years - 1980/81 and 1981/82. They also have two Copa del Rey (the Spanish equivalent of the FA Cup) to their name and will play in the delayed 2019-20 final against Athletic Bilbao, with the original match postponed due to the pandemic. Known as 'Real' (Royal) Sociedad, so called from their early days King Alfonso III of Spain bestowed his royal patronage upon them (hailing as they do from Sen Sebastien where His Majesty was his summer residence). Like United, they've been virtual ever presents at the top level of their country's elite league, aside from the odd foray here and there in the second tier. Sociedad qualified for the Europa League courtesy of a sixth placed finish in 2019-20 but a distant 14 points off fourth placed, Champions League bound Sevilla. 

Who's who..

There are several familiar faces amongst the Sociedad alumni. Adnan Januzaj - former Red with 63 Old Trafford appearances to his name - failed to fulfil his precocious potential at United and transferred to La Real in 2017 after several loan spells. The then 18-year-old burst on to the scene under David Moyes and was touted as United's next big thing but, unfortunately, is living proof that raw talent will only get you so far. Januzaj will be keen to show that he still has plenty to offer, so let's hope his pace and sweet left foot are left in the changing room for this double header! Elsewhere, David Silva is another name whom needs no introduction. After years of service across the road in the Sky Blue of Manchester City, Silva - now 35 - may be ageing but still has stardust in his boots. Widely regarded as one of the Premier League's finest ever foreign exports, Silva will be out to get one over on his former side's arch rivals for one last time.
At the back, Nacho Monreal is another former Premier League rival now plying his trade with Sociedad. Monreal spent eight years at Arsenal, winning three FA Cups and playing in the final of this competition with the Gunners. Mikel Merino, once of Newcastle, can now be found at the heart of Sociedad's midfield having become a full Spanish international since his move from SJP in 2018. 
In the dugout, like United, the Spaniards have a former player and one of their own at the helm. Imanol Alguacil had held numerous roles in San Sebastien, taking charge of the reserve side whilst also working as a scout and physio. Alguacil was appointed as boss of the first team in December 2018, and Thursday's match will be the 49 year old's 101st in the dugout.

Domestic duties..

Sociedad are a handy side and have enjoyed a good season in La Liga. The similarities with ourselves continue with Sociedad having led the way at the summit - albeit briefly - before fading slightly to the fringes. That said, they remain in contention for Champions League qualification, sitting in fifth place after 23 games with ten wins, eight draws, five defeats and 38 points - seven points off fourth placed Sevilla having played one game fewer. They followed up an impressive 4-1 win over Cadiz with victory by a solitary goal at Getafe on Valentine's Day. Swedish international Alexander Isak scored the winner in that game to hit double figures for the season, with Spanish hitman Mikel Oyarzabal leading the way as top scorer with twelve - both men got on the scoresheet in that result against Cadiz, as Oyarzabal and Isak plundered a brace apiece. 
Not only will the tie be played behind closed doors, but the first leg will take place in Turin at Juventus' Allianz Stadium due to coronavirus travel restrictions that prevent United from entering Spain. Sociedad will be the 'home' side in neutral Italy so away goals will apply as usual ahead of the second leg, to be played at Old Trafford as usual.

How they got here

As United agonisingly slipped out of the Champions League by the narrowest of margins at the death in Germany, Sociedad, too, were fighting for European survival in the Europa League. Drawn in Group F with Napoli, AZ and Croatian side Rijeka, their fate also came down to the final game. Trailing to the Italian side and heading out, a 92nd minute equaliser from Willian Jose (now on loan at Wolves), changed the complexion of the group in an instant - from almost certain elimination to last 32 progress in the blink of a proverbial eye. Sociedad were second in their section with two wins, three draws and one defeat from their six games to go through on eight points behind the Italians and setting up this heavyweight encounter with Solskjaer's United at the first knockout stage.

Haven't we met before?

We have met Sociedad twice before when the two clubs were paired together in the group stage of the Champions League during the 2013-14 season. Under David Moyes (who would later have an unsuccessful stint in charge of the side from San Sebastien), we won 1-0 at Old Trafford through an Inigo Martinez own goal. The away game in Spain ended goalless, notable for Marouane Fellaini's red card and
not much else. Robin van Persie also erred from the penalty spot in that game but it didn't matter as the Reds topped the group and Sociedad went out having finished bottom of the pile. 

The stage is set for an intriguing contest against opposition who cannot be under-estimated. Bring it on!

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