Don't give Real Sociedad de Fútbol your sympathy or your pity. They don't recognise themselves in any 'victim' scenario, despite the way their UEFA Champions League campaign has unfolded so far.
Under a new coach, and having sold their best player in the summer, they sit bottom of Group A – no points, one goal. Over the course of their three matches, two of them away from home, La Real have put 23 shots on target and hit the frame of the goal three times. Worse still, they lost at Bayer 04 Leverkusen to an effort in the second minute of added time and gifted Manchester United FC the fastest own goal (69 seconds) in the competition's history.
Once you get over the dark humour of broken mirrors, black cats and walking under ladders, the easiest scenario to put forward is lack of experience. The experienced elite know the drill: travel, rest, change of climate, rhythm of playing three games a week and not letting it show. The media requirements, the need to be clinical up front and hermetically sealed at the back – plus the occasionally vast disparity between hope and pride ... and cruel reality.
For outfits like La Real, the impact of trying to leap on board the UEFA Champions League merry-go-round, particularly in a group containing hugely experienced campaigners, can be debilitating. Not only is it quite feasible that the European experience can be draining and disheartening, the related impact on domestic football can also be huge.
When coach Jagoba Arrasate, the 35-year-old successor to Philippe Montanier, surveyed his Liga results spread around the first two matchdays, he well knew that everyone would blame the cocktail of changes – Montanier's departure, Asier Illarramendi's sale to Real Madrid CF – and injuries to key players such as Carlos Martínez, Imanol Agirretxe, Xabi Prieto and Esteban Granero.
There remain clear and defined positives, however. First the financial rewards are significant for a club which depends heavily on youth development. Moreover, with three matches left, two of them at home, continuity in either the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League is still feasible.
In equivalent situations to La Real's over recent years, the beginning of a new project – particularly where the new coach is young and inexperienced (it is just over a year since Arrasate gave up primary school teaching) – often tends to play out against the constant drone of a Greek chorus undermining the incumbent. Media, fans and ex-players are persistently asked to judge, too soon, and a project can be undermined. Confidence can erode quickly.
Around the Estadio de Anoeta, there has been little, if any, sign of that. Arrasate is charismatic, intelligent and valiant – the great majority have believed in him and given him space to work. How he will fare in the future remains unclear; these are early days. But with the return to fitness of the majority of his squad, things have been perceptibly improving week by week, including thumping wins in the last two Liga home games.
After their 5-0 success against CA Osasuna on Saturday, in which Antoine Griezmann equalled a club record by scoring in four consecutive Liga outings, Arrasate's men found themselves within three points of a UEFA Champions League qualifying slot. All of which sets up Tuesday's visit of Manchester United quite nicely.
"So far it has been about precision, not about a lack of experience in the Champions League," Arrasate argues. "I don't agree with people who talk about the impact of the Champions League. In each of our three group games we've had opportunities to score and not taken them and then conceded. It's about getting things precisely right at this level. That's our challenge."
Whether Arrasate's team defeat United or not, there will be a small tapestry of equally important details. Can they eliminate early and late lapses of concentration, can more of the chances be turned into goals, and are the less experienced players (and the coach) noticeably learning from this test of fire? And can La Real continue their domestic improvement irrespective of continuity in Europe? The Anoeta is the place to be on Tuesday.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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