On the path Real Sociedad is heading, there will be no need to celebrate promotion to the Primera División as they did here in June because they will stay in La Liga.

For a club with an illustrious history, a three-year internment in the purgatory of the Segunda División almost erased the San Sebastián club from the collective consciousness.  As with most historical clubs who end up falling to the second division in the past couple of decades (Leeds United, Napoli, Marseille, etc.), the main problem stemmed from crippling financial woes, and in the case of Real Sociedad, they were forced to enter the ignominy of administration in 2007.

As late as the 2002-03 season, the Erreala finished second in La Liga, pipped at the death by Real Madrid by a mere two points.  Leading the Madridistas by a point in the penultimate round, Sociedad lost at Balaídos to Celta de Vigo 3-2 while Real Madrid humbled Atlético Madrid 0-4 at the Vicente Calderón with two braces from Raúl and the original Ronaldo.  It was no shame for Sociedad to lose at Celta, who would finish fourth that campaign to continue a six-season streak of top-seven finishes, but a final day 3-0 win at Anoeta over Atlético Madrid ultimately came in vain as Real handled Athletic Bilbao 3-1 at the Bernabéu with another Ronaldo double to secure Madrid’s 29th Spanish crown.

That halcyon year, however, was sandwiched in between four seasons previous and four seasons afterward that saw Sociedad finish tenth or worse, and the man that is currently the president of the LFP, José Luís Astiazarán, eventually led Sociedad into the downward spiral as Real Sociedad president before being elected as the head of Spanish professional football in 2005.

With the core of that second-place team gone from Sociedad by 2007 (Xabi Alonso, Nihat Kahveci, Darko Kovacevic, Valeri Karpin, and Agustín Aranzábal), they finished five points from safety and were relegated.  With no parachute payments for the relegated teams like what the Premier League does for its relegated clubs, they could not bounce back into La Liga immediately, so three hard years with the likes of Numancia and Xerez promoted ahead of Real Sociedad only threw more dirt on their increasingly covered coffin.

What made the difference last season to earn promotion as the winners of the Segunda División?  Antoine Griezmann, please stand up.

Looking at Griezmann just for his physical numbers, he does not jump out as a physical specimen.  At a gangly 5′ 8″, his slight stature did not impress any of the clubs in his native France, and only in a chance encounter did the Real Sociedad scouts witness Griezmann’s burgeoning talent in a friendly youth match between Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain in 2005.

At the tender age of 14 at the time, Sociedad offered Griezmann a one-week trial, then a second-week trial, and then a full youth contract to cross the border and train with the Sociedad youth team.  Climbing the ladder within the youth ranks of Sociedad, new Sociedad trainer Martín Lasarte saw enough of the young, 19-year-old Frenchman to give him his professional debut at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, and he immediately became a regular with the first team.  Slotted on the left of the three man attacking midfield in Lasarte’s 4-2-3-1 formation, he assisted in numerous goals for Carlos Bueno, Xabi Prieto, and Imanol Agirretxe while providing six goals of his own.

When Real Sociedad officially earned promotion on June 13, 2010, ironically it was a defeat of Celta de Vigo in the penultimate round, the same team that essentially tore the La Liga trophy away from Real in the penultimate round in 2003.

Coming into the 2010-11 La Liga season, Martín Lasarte set out a modest goal of avoiding relegation by reaching the forty-point mark, an aspiration held by all promoted teams.  If Lasarte stressed patience with this inexperienced team, their opening round 1-0 victory over Villarreal accelerated expectations for captain Mikel Aranburu’s club.  With a settled squad, a couple of new recruits in €2.4 million striker Joseba Llorente and €1.5 million striker Diego Ifrán, whom Lasarte coached while he was at Danubio in Uruguay, and a contract extension for Lasarte through 2012, the Sociedad board’s prudent practices under president Jokin Aperribay look to have returned Real Sociedad back into a stable first division club.

In a respectable ninth place with a chance to climb within one point of a Europa League place heading into the late Sunday kickoff against Atlético Madrid, Lasarte’s men felt confident that they could earn the three points against los colchoneros at Anoeta.

Sociedad had won four of its first five home matches with the one blemish coming against Real Madrid, where Sociedad deserved a share of the points, outplaying Real for large stretches of the match.  An Ángel di María golazo and a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick that came off Pepe’s back prevented Sociedad from a landmark victory.  Add to the facts that Atlético had not won in San Sebastián since 1991 and had never won at the Estadio Anoeta since it was opened in 1993 gave Sociedad more motivation to defeat Atlético Madrid.

For the first forty-five minutes, Real Sociedad’s defense, which had only given up two goals at home for the season, limited Atlético to potshots from outside the area and the odd header from corner kicks.  The txuri-urdin only had three shots for the entire half, but all three were on target and came on three separate scoring chances.  Their goal came from a slice of Antoine Griezmann magic, where he mesmerized Luís Amaranto Perea with his footwork and crossed to the six-yard box in a flash, where it is still unclear after many replays whether Tomáš Ujfaluši or Joseba Llorente got the final touch, but Llorente received credit for the goal.  On the two other scoring opportunities, David de Gea just got to the ball in the box before Llorente could get a touch, and Llorente’s extended foot in the air from Xabi Prieto’s cross was inches away from making contact with the ball and giving his team a priceless 2-0 lead.

While Atlético seized control in the second half while Sociedad sat back to protect their one-goal advantage, a fifteen second splice of time in the 71st minute turned the match around from a potential 2-0 scoreline for Sociedad to a 1-1 equalizer for Atlético.

Referee Miguel Ángel Ayza Gámez did not blow his whistle for an apparent handball on Tiago Mendes in the box after Ion Ansotegui flicked the ball in Tiago’s direction, and immediately after the no-call, Atlético countered and converted to equalize.  José Antonio Reyes started the lightning-quick counter-attack from the disputed call with a sixty yard diagonal ball that found Sergio Agüero in stride at the top of the penalty area, and with a two-on-two with the Sociedad defense, Agüero cut back the ball for Forlán in the box, and Forlán made no mistake with his effort to the left near post and past a stunned Claudio Bravo.  Naturally, the Sociedad players acted with justified disgust and dismay after Ayza Gámez refused the penalty calls, but one of the basic tenets of football is to play to the whistle, and they let their guard down for a few seconds, and Atlético capitalized for the tying goal.

If Sociedad felt wronged for Atlético’s first goal, their heads exploded after Atlético’s second goal because the linesman did not call Agüero offside even though he was more than a body length off.

Atlético Madrid would win the match 2-4, capping off nineteen years of frustration in San Sebastián, but Martín Lasarte summarized the match perfectly in his comments to MARCA following this loss:

“Losing is always a bitter feeling but harder to accept in certain circumstances.  We tried our best to get a result.”

On pace for fifty-one points and a mid-table finish, Real Sociedad is heading in the right direction both on and off the pitch.  While this loss to Atlético Madrid comes with an extra sting because of two no-calls by the referee crew that directly led to two Atlético goals, they can take solace in the idea that they controlled a potential Champions League team for seventy minutes without needing to play perfectly to keep their 1-0 lead.

These types of performances at home will keep Real Sociedad in La Liga for next season and the foreseeable future, and while Antoine Griezmann will likely get snapped up by one of the big European clubs within a year or two, the potential sale of their best talent since Xabi Alonso could continue the renaissance of a club that was an original founder of La Liga in 1928 and has been instrumental in weaving the fabric of Spanish football for the past century.

Fueras de Juego

– Juan Manuel Lillo and Pep Guardiola are close friends, stemming from their time together at Mexican club Dorados de Sinaloa when Lillo was the manager and Guardiola was in his last year as a player.  When Guardiola’s Barcelona team hardly played at full form yet won at Almería 0-8 on Saturday, it did not give Guardiola any joy not only because he demoralized and crushed one of his mentors but because Lillo was subsequently sacked following the match.  The 0-8 scoreline tied Barcelona’s biggest away win in their history when they defeated Las Palmas 0-8 in 1959.  The aura of inevitability and fatalism in the crowd said all that needed to be said, as they did not even make the effort to boo, whistle, or jeer their team with Almería falling six, seven, and eight goals down.

– Not to be outdone by Barcelona’s performance, Real Madrid shook off any notion of a trap game against Athletic Bilbao with an emphatic 5-1 win at the Bernabéu.  Cristiano Ronaldo matched Lionel Messi’s hat trick with a hat trick of his own, and while Athletic made it hard for Real for the first hour of the match, an idea foreign to Almería against Barcelona, Real eventually turned on the class and shoved Athletic away with Barcelona now squarely in their crosshairs next Monday night.  Real does have a difficult match at Ajax in the Champions League in the midweek, but with qualification to the knockout round already secured, expect a much changed lineup for Ajax to have their best starting eleven healthy for El Clásico.

– Villarreal and Valencia played to a mildly entertaining 1-1 draw in the Valencian derby in the opening match of the round, but more importantly, the draw, combined with the Real and Barça wins, has enlarged the gulf between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest of La Liga.  Villarreal currently sits third, eight points behind Real Madrid and seven points behind Barcelona, and the only chance that Villarreal has to keep pace with them is for Villarreal to take care of business against Real Zaragoza while El Clásico ends in a draw.  It only took twelve rounds to separate Barça and Real from the rest of Spain, and with the new TV deal giving them 34% of the money (17% for each) while the other professional teams split the remaining 66%, Real and Barcelona could make it a two-horse race earlier and earlier in the coming years.