la liga

The silence of the wolves

Real Sociedad has reached the Champions League places with almost the same team that won it promotion

Real Sociedad's Alberto de la Bella celebrates one of the team's goals in a recent 4-1 win over Málaga.
Real Sociedad's Alberto de la Bella celebrates one of the team's goals in a recent 4-1 win over Málaga.ANDER GILLENEA (AFP)

"The more silence there is surrounding Real Sociedad the better the team plays," was the mantra around the Anoeta stadium when the Basque club won two league titles in the early 1980s, and the current board and former players from that era are repeating it now.

"Real Sociedad is like Gipuzkoa's society: quiet and not given to flashiness," says Lorenzo Juarros, Real's sporting director.

"Right now we have 17 players from the cantera [youth academy]. We knew it was better to rely on the youth system than spend money. With money sometimes things happen faster, but with the cantera it is more durable. And the faith placed in players encourages them to stay loyal to the club," he says in reference to Real's decision to stick with a side largely made up of players that were in Segunda División in the 2009-10 season, when Real won promotion to the top division.

Only Chory Castro, Diego Ifrán, José Angel and Carlos Vela, the team's top scorer, have been added to the side that went up that year. Now, Real is fourth in La Liga, unbeaten since a 4-3 reverse against Real Madrid on January 6, with both Barcelona and Atlético among its many scalps since then.

In the first half of the season, coach Philippe Montanier was not a popular figure at Anoeta. The fans believed the Frenchman lacked ambition, tinkered with the line-up too much and played too cautiously against La Liga's bigger fish. However, says Juarros, at Real Sociedad the byword has always been "work without looking like you are working. And that is what is what we saw at

Weekend Liga fixtures

  • Real Sociedad's season could get even better this weekend if Valencia versus Málaga ends in a tie and it beats Osasuna at the Reyno de Navarra. Sociedad is currently five points clear of Valencia, fifth, and Málaga, sixth.
  • Of the top three, Atlético faces the trickiest test as it travels to fierce rival Sevilla . Real Madrid hosts in-form Betis but the Bernabéu is unbreached in the league this season. Barça welcomes Levante to Camp Nou.
  • There will be a lot of nervous sunflower seed munching at Celta 's Balaídos stadium as Zaragoza visits the northwest in search of three points. Both sides are firmly in the mire and the first veritable six-pointer of the season will be a cagey affair.

Zubieta [Real's training complex] with a coach who came with a new concept of team formation, a very French profile and little experience of Spanish soccer, which held him back a bit initially."

But far from a season fighting relegation, Real is now dreaming of Champions League participation. Montanier's starting 11 is, barring injuries, now fixed and contains full backs with the highest crossing record in the league, two towering center halves, a front line full of prolific goalscorers (Xavi Prieto, Vela and Imanol Agirretxe) and an orchestrator, Asier Illarramendi, who combines the passing ability of Xavi with the power of Xabi Alonso.

Real's playing style has to some extent taken aspects of Barcelona and Real Madrid and blended them together. The team keeps the ball like the former in its own half, controlling possession, but plays with the directness of the latter once it crosses the halfway line.

"All the players have evolved individually and as a team," says Juarros. "But it has all come from patience, born of the conviction that the talent was there." To the crop that rose from Segunda have been added two exceptional prospects in Íñigo Martínez and Rubén Pardo.

Former professional goalkeeper Montanier has remained true to the law of silence, like his team; the silence of the wolf pack stalking the sheep. López Ufarte says Real's success is based on a group of young players "that firstly play soccer very well, have a good goalkeeper [Claudio Bravo], an established defense, a balanced midfield and a front line in which anyone can provide goals."

From the traditional number 9, Agirretxe, to the zigzagging guile of Antoine Griezmann, the pure talent of one-club-man Prieto and the assuredness of Xabi Alonso's apparent successor, Illarramendi, Real has plenty of aces up its sleeve for the game of poker developing in La Liga's European zone.