x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Real Sociedad look to punch above their weight

Real Sociedad have endured a difficult start to the season. They visit Old Trafford for their Uefa Champions League match against Manchester United off Saturday’s 2-1 win at Valencia, only their second league win.

Forward Imanol Agirretxe, left, hopes to be doing a lot of celebrating with his Real Sociedad teammates on Wednesday night at Old Trafford. Cristina Quicler / AFP
Forward Imanol Agirretxe, left, hopes to be doing a lot of celebrating with his Real Sociedad teammates on Wednesday night at Old Trafford. Cristina Quicler / AFP

MANCHESTER // The first of the 6,000 Real Sociedad fans arrived in rainy Manchester on Tuesday morning. Wearing team shirts and the prominent earrings popular with young Basques, their excitement was obvious as they sorted directions to Old Trafford from the city’s main rail station.

“My first-ever Champions League away game,” said Gorka Martinez, 29. “It’s a dream to come to Old Trafford, but we have to win.”

Only their Basque rivals, Athletic Bilbao, have brought so many fans to Old Trafford for a European game.

“La Real” think they could have sold 10,000 tickets.

Athletic were surprise 3-2 victors in that 2012 Europa League match, and their neighbours need an unlikely repeat on Wednesday night for any realistic chance of advancing past the group stage of their first Champions League campaign in a decade.

Sociedad have endured a difficult start to the season. Saturday’s 2-1 win at Valencia was their most impressive of the season, but also only their second Primera Liga win.

They sit 12th after nine games, seven points from fourth place, where they finished after a late rally last season.

“We haven’t started well, but the atmosphere remains good in the dressing room,” said the locally born striker Imanol Agirretxe, 26. “We have almost the same team, we have fantastic players, we have confidence that we can do what we did last year and rise up the table. We’ll work hard and get our reward.”

Agirretxe made a point that luck has deserted the Basques in their two opening defeats of the Champions League.

Hugely impressive when beating Lyon twice in the qualifying games, they have also played well in their opening games.

“We attacked against Shakhtar [Donetsk] at home, had chances, didn’t take them,” said the Basque striker. “Then we got hit twice in the second half.

“In Germany, against Leverkusen, we played well. We took a lot of possession and scored, but lost to a goal in the 92nd minute.

“It’s frustrating.”

Lacking experience of the nuances of the European game, Sociedad struggled last time around in the Champions League, and though coach Philippe Montanier’s decision to move to Rennes at the end of the season surprised, it was also logical.

He had led his team into the Champions League qualifiers, and been voted Spain’s coach of the year, but was only been offered a one-year contract to stay on against a three-year deal to coach in France.

Montanier rightly suspected that they would have to sell at least one star while having to compete on two fronts with the same squad. It was a tall order and so proved.

Asier Illarramendi, the Spanish Under 21 midfielder, moved to Real Madrid for an eye-opening €30 million (Dh150.6m) fee. Financially challenged Sociedad replaced him with Jagoba Arrasate, 35, the youth coach who had worked with Montanier’s back-room staff last season.

It was the budget option, and not a convincing one for many of the 24,000 fans who make up their average home crowd.

Group leaders United, with a win and a draw from their two games, face pressure of their own.

Eighth in the Premier League after as many games, fans remained unconvinced by new manager David Moyes and the form and style of his team.

United’s best performance of the season came at home in Europe against Bayer Leverkusen.

Their players will receive even more support from fans tonight because a singing section is being tested at Old Trafford, an effort to improve the atmosphere.

With so many Basques, there will not be any issues with the atmosphere, no matter how much the Manchester rain tries to dampen it.


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