Real Sociedad de Fútbol coach Philippe Montanier said fans of the team could "start dreaming" after a 4-1 victory against Real Valladolid CF – their sixth win in ten top–flight games – lifted the Basque side to fourth in the standings.
Montanier assumed the Sociedad helm last season having previously coached Valenciennes FC in his native France. Although originally assessing La Real's policy of promoting youth-team players as a "gamble", it is one that is now paying off for the team from San Sebastián, who are chasing a first UEFA Champions League appearance since 2003/04.
"The difference is that as a team we have more experience now," said Montanier, 48. "We are seeing the fruits of that gamble on youth we took when I arrived. It's not easy throwing players as young as some of them straight in at the deep end but they have shown a lot of quality."
Among the starting XI for the victory against Valladolid – La Real's 800th in the Spanish top flight – were eight players who had come through the club's youth ranks, including goalscorers Antoine Griezmann, Imanol Agirretxe and Xabier Prieto.
"At the beginning it cost us a lot of effort in trying to win away from home, but we gradually started to improve, especially defensively," midfielder Prieto explained. "Up front we have a lot of quick players who can cause significant damage."
Armed with a formidable attacking system often compared to that of FC Barcelona, Real Sociedad have earned notable triumphs against Barça, Valencia CF and Málaga CF. They also became the first side to defeat Club Atlético de Madrid at the Vicente Calderón in the Liga this season.
"That [1-0] win against Atlético helped us to grow and gain confidence," said Montanier, formerly a goalkeeper with SM Caen, Toulouse FC and FC Guegnon. "I am very satisfied with 47 points from 28 games; it means great progression compared to last season. You can start dreaming."
Midfielder David Zurutuza summed up the growing unity and confidence within the group, saying: "The more time passes the more teams are afraid of us; we are making things difficult for our opponents. Whatever ground we travel to we go without fear and although a team may score against us we remain calm as we know that we can cause our opponents harm."
A record of just one defeat – a 4-3 loss away to Real Madrid CF – since 4 November adds weight to Zurutuza's words. Supporters are now making comparisons with the Real Sociedad side containing Xabi Alonso, Nihat Kaveci, Darko Kovačević, and coached by another Frenchman, Raynald Denoueix, that reached the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League nine years ago.
"The Champions League? They're pretty big words," said 23-year-old midfielder Asier Illarramendi. "It would be beautiful to enter the tournament but we are currently competing with some great teams [for fourth place] so it will be difficult."
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