To say Real Sociedad are a team of veterans may be a little wide of the mark, but Manchester United will certainly recognise a few familiar faces when they meet the Spanish side in Thursday’s Europa League tie.
Nacho Monreal, formerly of Arsenal, David Silva, a Manchester City player for a decade, and Adnan Januzaj, who spent six seasons as a United player, even though two of those included loans away, will all be present in Turin to face a team they know a lot about.
Januzaj faces former club
Real Sociedad will be able to tap into the knowledge that Januzaj, in particular, holds on their round-of-32 opponents. The Belgian attacker came through the United academy and experienced a break-out season under David Moyes but soon fell out of favour when Louis Van Gaal arrived. He still ‘loves’ the club that he departed last summer but says he ‘doesn’t have anything to prove’ when he faces his former club.
There is a notable contingent of former Premier League players in Real Sociedad’s squad and the old boys gave la Real a boost as they topped the La Liga table in the early stages of the season and were the best team in Spain at the time, playing quick and incisive football while combining that with a sturdy defence.
Since then they have settled into the more anticipated position of fifth and face a challenge to qualify for the Champions League by finishing in the top four. Therefore progressing in the Europa League is of importance for them.
This is Real Sociedad’s second campaign in this competition in four seasons. They won two and drew three of their group games in this campaign to finish second and this tie against United represents a big occasion for the club and will be one of the biggest matches for Imanol Alguacil, a former player who was the club’s B team manager before taking over the first-team role in 2018.
The sides did meet in the group stages of the Champions League in 2013 - a draw and a United win for those wondering - but this knockout tie represents an opportunity for the Basque side to further their European ambitions and cause somewhat of an upset.
Oyarzabal return a boost
Real Sociedad are certainly capable of beating United over two legs. Only La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Sevilla have conceded fewer goals this season than the 20 that Alguicil’s side have shipped. Their ability to stop sides scoring on a regular basis has been the backbone of their campaign.
Monreal is on the left side of a well-coached backline featuring Jose Zaldua, Aritz Elustondo and Igor Zubeldia. While captain Asier Illarramendi, the former Real Madrid midfielder, patrols the centre of the pitch the attack-minded Silva, Januzaj and Mikel Merino push on up-field.
Sociedad saw their star striker Willian Jose depart on loan to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the winter transfer window but the promising 21-year-old Alexander Isak has stepped up and scored nine goals in his 19 appearances so far this season.
The good news for the Spanish side is that attacker Mikel Oyarzabal, who was deemed a doubt for the game due to a hamstring problem, is in contention to play. The left-footed player, who came through Real Sociedad’s academy, has scored or assisted in six of his last nine appearances and his highly sought after in Spain.
United lacking consistency
Real Sociedad certainly have the ingredients to hurt United, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side’s poor performance away to West Bromwich Albion will provide further hope to Alguicil’s men. Since United last played in Europe when they lost 3-2 to RB Leipzig in the Champions League in December, they’ve lost just two of their 19 matches, but they head into this game in their most inconsistent form of that period.
Meanwhile, Sociedad have scored in all of their last 10 matches which have included a draw with Real Madrid and taking Barcelona to penalties in the Super Cup semi-final last month, thus showing they can compete with bigger sides.
The mixture of experience and youth is fuelling la Real well and they will hope to demonstrate that when they take on United in the most enticing tie of the round.