Barcelona travel to Real Sociedad on Thursday night for the first leg of their Copa Del Rey quarter-final tie and the Blaugrana will be fearing the trip not least because they haven’t won in San Sebastian since Andres Iniesta and Samuel Eto’o fired them to a 0-2 victory back in 2007.
Iniesta and Lionel Messi are the only players remaining from the last Barcelona side to win in the Anoeta and the pair’s current fortunes are reflective of troubles at the Nou Camp.
The knocks that inevitably follow players into their 30s have restricted Iniesta to just 6 starts, stripping Luis Enrique’s team of the imperious control and intelligence he provides, while such is the sensitivity surrounding Messi and the new contract he is yet to sign that a club director was sacked for saying “Leo is one of the most important people in the team, but it’s not just about him”.
Messi sits on 27 goals and still fully capable of the momentary genius that has illustrated his career but it’s his supporting cast that should attract worry. The effectiveness of Luis Suarez and Neymar (the Brazilian has scored once since October) has declined while Sergio Busquets and Andre Gomes have struggled badly in midfield, with Enrique unable to decide on a regular third midfielder from a squad riddled with inconsistent performers.
The 4 draws in their 11-match unbeaten league run were mitigated by Real Madrid’s loss at Sevilla on Sunday but they are still 2 points behind their rivals, who have a game in hand. The Catalans narrowly scraped by Athletic Bilbao in the last-16 of the Spanish Cup after a first-leg defeat and now Sociedad, sitting only 6 points behind Barcelona and having a fine season themselves, can add more pressure on Enrique.
Manager Eusebio Sacristan continues to work wonders at the Anoeta since succeeding David Moyes in November 2015, picking up a side in 18th and finishing it ten places higher at the end of the campaign before moving them up to fifth after an indifferent start to this campaign.
Sociedad have not played European football since Phillipe Montanier, recently sacked by Nottingham Forest, steered them to fourth in 2013 but a run of just 2 defeats in their last 10 has got The Royals dreaming again. The Anoeta has been a fortress, hosting defeats only to Madrid and Sevilla, the league’s current top 2, while Barcelona were held 1-1 there in November.
William Jose got their goal that evening, one of nine this season for the powerful Brazilian striker plucked from Deportivo Maldonado in the Uruguayan second division last summer. Eusebio used the transfer window to offload expensive misfiring attackers Alfred Finnbogason and Jonathas while also bringing in Junami from Southampton, his £4 million fee returning 7 goals as well as cover across the front 3.
Carlos Vela, on 5 goals and reaching his best levels yet again, and Mikel Oyarzabal have usually lined up either side of Jose in an attacking trio that has thrived under Eusebio’s instruction to play with more freedom. As a result the Mexican has become more of a provider, his 30 chances created is the highest number in the Sociedad squad, while the 19-year-old Oyarzabal, having graduated from the same youth set-up that forged Antoine Griezmann, has carved out 4 goals.
Eusebio, a member of Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ in the early 1990s, is on the long list of coaches schooled by Johan Cruyff and the Dutchman’s influence is clear in a team that operates through a fluid 4-3-3.
Asier Illaramendi, David Zurutuza and Xabi Prieto, all products of the club’s prosperous youth system, have been brilliant in midfield, nobody completing more passes in La Liga than Illaramendi who has recaptured some of the form that persuaded Real Madrid to splash £27 million on him in 2013.
With full-backs Yuri and Carlos Martinez encouraged to steam forwards at every opportunity, Sociedad’s sense of adventure under Eusebio is in stark contrast to the prosaic days of Moyes and while only 5 teams have managed more shots per game than Sociedad (12.4) this season, only Las Palmas, Sevilla and Real Madrid have averaged more possession (55.3).
Eusebio has encouraged his players, many of whom stifled by the transition from Montanier to Moyes via Jagoba Arrasate, to be more enterprising with the ball and they have created chances at a rate of 9.6 per game.
The goals against tally has been skewed by convincing home defeats to Madrid and Sevilla, as well as the anomaly of the 5-1 thrashing at Deportivo La Coruna, but otherwise Inigo Martinez and Raul Navas have held firm at the back, helping to secure 7 clean sheets for Geronimo Rulli, the less-scrutinised of Pep Guardiola’s summer goalkeeper signings at Manchester City.
Rulli was acquired by City in June, again from Deportivo Maldonado, but then sold to back to Sociedad, where he had spent last season on loan, with a buy back clause. As Claudio Bravo fails to adapt to the rigours of the Premier League, it is no surprise to see reports of Guardiola already weighing up a move back for the agile 24-year-old who has made 52 saves and, most attractively to the City boss, sits top of the La Liga goalkeeper passing stats with 645 completed.
Having reaped the big-money sales of Illaramendi, Griezmann and Bravo himself in recent seasons, Sociedad will be under no financial pressure to sell any of their assets in January and any negotiating position will be made stronger by the feeling they are onto something under Eusebio.
Monday’s 0-2 win in Malaga was achieved despite the manager choosing to rotate much of his squad, the likes of Sergio Canales, Esteban Granero and Mikel Gonzalez have all been able deputies throughout the campaign, and the momentum will be carried into Thursday night’s tie with Barcelona. The Catalans will not be relishing their trip to San Sebastian, for reasons deeper than their distrust of the Anoeta.