By the end of Wednesday night Real Sociedad, leading 2-1 against Mirandes from the first leg, might be in their first Copa del Rey final for 32 years.
Their sense of yearning is increased by the fact that since they were beaten 1-0 by Barcelona in the 1988 showpiece, sixteen different La Liga sides have reached the final — their most hated Basque rivals, Athletic Club, three times.
For the club, their increasingly buoyant fans and La Real coach Imanol Aguacil — a man who cares so much for his club that he bleeds Txuri-Urdin (blue and white) — they are truly desperate to power through this semifinal. Especially if Athletic win the other tie over Granada to then possibly see Euskal Herria‘s biggest sides in the Copa final for the first time since 1910.
Real Socieded need this. But like the old saying of ‘you wait 40 minutes for a bus then two come along at once,’ the club can’t under any circumstances afford to get carried away. Whether they are partying, dancing and singing long into Thursday morning after the second leg against Mirandes (stream live at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN+ in the U.S.) — or slumped in painful admission that they’ve failed and been knocked out by a mid-table second-division side which hasn’t won in the league this year — they must immediately be completely ready for the next few days.
Why? Along with the Copa within their reach, there is a genuine possibility that they can play Champions League football next season for the first time in seven long years.
Back then, for finishing bottom of Group A behind Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk, Jagoba Arrasate’s side earned €17.24 million. This season, Spain’s four clubs (albeit they qualified from their groups) each earned between €50-60m for their work.
If La Real can muscle their way into la Liga’s top four at season’s end it’ll be like writing themselves a minimum €50m cheque — life changing for everyone associated with a club which has had to play second fiddle to Athletic in the Basque country for what seems an eternity.
And returning to the theme — Real Sociedad’s beckoning chance for glory, prestige, self-confidence and millions of UEFA’s lovely lolly will hinge, hugely, on their next two games after Wednesday’s match.
Imanol’s sparky, daring, swashbuckling team not only have to be the first to test whether Barcelona’s tame Clasico defeat at Real Madrid will provoke a vicious retaliation or a depressed collapse — they really need to register their first league win at Camp Nou win since 1991.
Three days later, Real Sociedad play their game in hand. Away to Basque neighbours Eibar, they’ll will face thorny rivals, ‘an up-and-at-em!’ side full of the need to give their bigger-brother a bloody nose — and to scrabble away from relegation.
A landfill fire and toxic chemicals in the air had postponed the match’s original date, so if La Real want things to smell like roses and cut the three-point gap on third-placed Sevilla, it’s going to be a hat trick of brutally draining, high-tension, high risk matches in the space of six days.
Let’s just stand back from the panorama in front of the blue-and-whites for the moment and just take account of what a damn remarkable season this has been for them already.
It has really stung for the Txuri-Urdin to see Athletic lauded and cherished for their ‘Basque-only’ signing policy and reach final after final, including the Europa League in 2012 and winning the Spanish Super Cup in 2016.
Then Athletic managed the sensational achievement of rebuilding their legendary, but tired, San Mames stadium on the same beautiful spot — and be awarded all three of Spain’s matches in this summer’s European Championship.
Rearrange these words in the appropriate order as far as Real Sociedad are concerned…Wound. Salt. Rubbed. In.
But now the long-awaited Anoeta renovation is finished. La Real‘s stadium has shed its hated running track, the atmosphere is twice as good, the modernisation of their playing arena has made it a joy to attend and the team, well, the team… it’s playing some of the best football in Europe.
Mikel Oyarzabal, season ticket holder at Eibar but the current absolute icon of this Real Sociedad side, points out: “A change like this, getting rid of the running track around the pitch was not only wanted it was required — by everyone who loves this club.”
“We all wanted the change. Now we’ve got the perfect stadium, playing surface, fan experience and atmosphere,” he added. “People will come to Anoeta and enjoy themselves — but the best way to guarantee that for them is us keeping on winning.
“Obviously, when the support is strong we feed off it — it lifts us. “We want to repay our fans now.”
Imanol, good enough as a player to have beaten Barcelona twice, with La Real and Villarreal, lives and breathes this club.
Indeed it was for that reason, last time he was in charge (three months in Spring 2018), that he stepped away from the job — petrified, by his own admission, that he might not be able to do a sufficiently good job and that, if so, he’d ruin his health, break his own spirit and feel coated in shame.
Persuaded to take the helm again he’s got Nacho Monreal, Igor Zubeldia, Mikel Merino, Martin Odegaard, Oyarzabal, and Alexander Isak playing, in each case, about the best football of their lives. Home-produced kids like Ander Barrenetxea, Ander Guevara and Aihen Munoz are all growing in stature while Alex Remiro, pinched from Athletic, is becoming an increasingly reliable keeper. Heck, Imanol’s even begun to get a tune out of the notoriously elusive Adnan Januzaj.
“I guess there were supporters, in preseason, who didn’t dream that things would be going this well,” Imanol said. “Nor that our team would be generating such pride and admiration.
“Obviously all this is as a consequence of good results.”
He continued: “But what will stay with me longer is the feeling of pride surrounding the club now … This is a bold team, brave — one constructed with the aim of playing so high up the opposition half that we are fifty metres from our own goal.
“Right now I won’t put any ceiling on our ambitions, or what we can achieve.”
There are tests though — beyond requiring to take a minimum four points from their next two away matches at Barca and Eibar.
Oyarzabal is really well quoted all over Europe, it’s not just Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola who wants to prise him away. Odegaard will have at least one big decision to ponder in the summer, despite him having insisted on his loan deal from Real Madrid being two seasons.
Madrid will require a footballer like the Norwegian sooner rather than later — but is he sure to play sufficiently if he allows himself to be recalled 12 months early? He’s happy, independent and patently burning through development stages at La Real but is their potential big enough for him?
Liverpool thought they had him signed at 16. He and his dad were Liverpool fans, Steven Gerrard was often on the phone to him and was happy to show Odegaard around the Reds’ training set up. I can tell you, firmly, they’d still like to right that wrong and snaffle him up.
So often does Merino, still only 23 but a veteran of seasons spent at both Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle, glide through opposition midfields or defences that it’ll be shocking if he’s not with Spain this summer — and if there aren’t ravenous, huge clubs knocking at his door shortly after.
Anyhow, that’s for the challenging future. Right now it’s fully feasible that with a burst of thrilling form and maturity Los Txuri-Urdin could, in one week’s time, be in the Copa final and third in La Liga having beaten Barcelona at Camp Nou for the first time in 29 years and Eibar to claim Basque bragging rights.
‘Could be’ … but can they?