With nine wins on the trot, Real Sociedad have hit an all-time club record for a successful run of form.
They look across the leading five leagues of Europe and can rightly regard themselves not as gate-crashers of the elite but worthy members. Only Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain have won more competitive games this season than la Real’s 21.
More importantly, the revelation team of La Liga will carry superior form into contests with both traditional giants of Spain over the next five days. La Real visit Barcelona – Spanish league leaders – in the Copa del Rey last-eight on Wednesday evening and Real Madrid, the European and domestic champions, in the league on Sunday. Win at the Bernabeu and la Real, third in the table, would go level with second-placed Real Madrid.
“Of course confidence is soaring,” says head coach Imanol Alguacil, “but we need to keep showing that on the pitch.”
He has concerns about fitness, notably of the dynamic, injured midfielder Mikel Merino, but has a deep reservoir of belief that his squad can compensate for significant absentees.
La Real have been doing that since August. Late in the summer, they lost their star centre-forward, after a bid that could rise to €70 million for Alexander Isak from Newcastle United seemed irresistible for the club’s financial well-being and for the Swedish striker.
The Nigerian Umar Sadiq came in as Isak’s replacement, scored on his la Real debut but promptly ruptured a cruciate ligament. Add to that the long-term injury of Mikel Oyarzabal, the captain and leading scorer in 2021-22, and few would have foreseen the impressive la Real climb that was to follow.
A blessing for Imanol, a former la Real player, is that Oyarzabal is now back from surgery, having missed the World Cup with Spain and watched from distance as his club found goals from midfield and a working combination of pace and penalty-box presence up front.
Alexander Sorloth, on loan from RB Leipzig, is providing regular reminders that Erling Haaland is not the only Norwegian target-man capable of spearheading a bid for trophies. Sorloth struck his fifth goal in as many games in the victory over Rayo Vallecano at the weekend.
Meanwhile, Takefusa Kubo, the pacey Japanese forward, is endorsing la Real’s reputation as a club where footballers who have struggled to make an impression after being signed very young at bigger clubs can come and thrive.
Isak came to San Sebastian, la Real’s city, after an unfulfilling time as a Borussia Dortmund prodigy; Martin Odegaard’s performances while on loan at la Real from Madrid, who signed him as a 16-year-old, propelled him towards his stylish maturing at Arsenal. Kubo was also at Madrid, underused and loaned out, until la Real bought him in the summer.
But the club’s best recruit of the last three years? Perhaps David Silva, who has followed a decade of glories at Manchester City with two and half years of sustained high standards at la Real. He turned 37 earlier this month. La Real want him to extend a contract that expires in June and so he is still threading passes through tight defences and inspiring those around him into his 39th year.
Among the players benefiting from Silva’s example are many, like Oyarzabal and the coveted midfielder Martin Zubimendi, from the club’s academy. The home-grown proportion of first-teamers this season is well over 60 per cent. Having a side that vividly represents their Basque region is vital to la Real.
Their chief local rivalry is with Athletic Club in Bilbao, where the policy is to pick only footballers born, raised or with heritage in the Basque Country, a small catchment area in northern Spain and creeping over the French border.
Not for a long time has the region looked so healthy as a producer of talent. The Spanish Cup’s quarter-finals include la Real; Athletic, who meet Sevilla, and nearby Osasuna, who play Valencia tomorrow. Athletic and Osasuna are both in contention for European places next season, 7th and 8th in La Liga.
A caravan of admired Basque coaches are at the same time making a major impact across Europe. Beside Osasuna’s Jagoba Arrasate and la Real’s Imanol, there is San Sebastian-born Mikel Arteta, architect of Arsenal’s Premier League chase.
When Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers needed a rescuer earlier in the season they reached out to the expert Basques, Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui. When Bayer Leverkusen were dropping towards the Bundesliga relegation zone in October, they hired Xabi Alonso, whose playing career began at his hometown club, la Real.
In his first senior managerial job he has rapidly guided Leverkusen from relegation into the top half of the Bundesliga.