By Simon Hart
In football, as in life, you never know what is around the corner. Followers of Real Sociedad de Fútbol know this better than most.
Chase the dream
Real's success last season gave them a year to treasure. After fighting against relegation in 2001/02, the Anoeta faithful saw their side chase the dream of a first league title since 1982, a chase which went to the last day when Real Madrid CF took the crown. The UEFA Champions League beckoned but Real failed to carry last term's momentum into 2003/04, struggling to combine their twin commitments of domestic and European football.
Players came in and out of the team as coach Raynald Denoueix rotated his squad, with the effect that Real failed to find any fluency. They may have progressed with Juventus FC from their Champions League group but they finished 2003 without a win in nine league games, ending the year third from bottom of the Primera División.
Fast forward a month or so and Real are a team transformed. Their 1-0 home defeat of Real Racing Club Santander last weekend made it five straight wins and lifted Denoueix's side into the top half of the table. Last season's virtues of hard work and effective counterattacking have been rediscovered.
Focus on league
An obvious factor in their improvement is that Real, their resources stretched by European involvement, have been able to focus on the league alone. Coach Denoueix told uefa.com: "For the time being, we have only league games and having a game once a week allows us to function much better."
He added: "Playing in both the league and the Champions League you learn a lot. The Champions League is another level where you appreciate the importance of concentration. When you have a match every three days to be capable of being at your highest level you realise how much concentration that demands."
Return to form
There is also the return to form of their key players. Before Christmas the midfield was sluggish, the attack blunt. Of their three summer signings - Basque midfield player Bittor Alkiza, Korean Republic striker Chun-Lee Soo and French defender Lionel Potillon - only Alkiza had impressed. Now we are seeing why Real did so well last season.
Making things happen
Nihat Kahveci has rediscovered the explosive edge so vital to Real's gameplan, Darko Kovacevic is scoring again and Xabi Alonso is making things happen in the middle. All three were on target in the 5-2 win at RC Celta de Vigo on 25 January, their best display of the season. Meanwhile, Valeri Karpin's form down the right belies his 35 years, and with four goals in his last five matches he looks as good as ever.
One of Karpin's goals brought a 1-0 win over Madrid in their first home match of the year - "a boost to our morale" according to Denoueix. Morale restored, the Frenchman can look ahead to the Champions League first knockout round tie with Olympique Lyonnais later this month with confidence. "Since I left France I've not seen them play," he said of the French champions. "[But] I know it'll be a really close match."
'Have to be ready'
That is for later, though. Right now Denoueix and Real are happy concentrating on the league. As defender Aitor López Rekarte told uefa.com: "
There is still time before the Champions League resumes but we realise the league is the basis of everything, it will give us confidence and when the Champions League comes around we have to be ready."
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