Real Sociedad de Fútbol are 90 minutes away from achieving their dream of playing in the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time since 2003/04, their only appearance to date. Last week's 2-0 first-leg win at Olympique Lyonnais has filled San Sebastian with hope and expectation ahead of Wednesday's return at the Anoeta.
Stunning goals from Antoine Griezmann and Haris Seferovic at the Stade de Gerland left Jagoba Arrasate's team on the verge of a place in Thursday's group stage draw. Indeed the Txuri-urdin – blue and whites – have been through a lot since the last time they were among European club football's elite ten years ago, when it was Lyon who ended their participation in the last 16.
Three years later La Real were relegated from the Liga and it took another three before they managed to return. Basing their side around a talented group of young players, the Basque outfit began the gradual improvement that led to a fourth-placed finish last term. That impressive achievement was trumped by last week's win in Lyon, where nine of the starting lineup had featured in the club's successful promotion push in 2010.
One of those players was French Under-21 international midfielder Griezmann, whose acrobatic volley produced the first goal last week. "I was so happy with that performance," explained the 22-year-old, who grew up in Macon, 65km from Lyon. "We were very keen to show Europe that we had a good team that can play good football. We were solid in defence while we took advantage of our chances going forward."
"My parents were in the stands watching me that night and they began to cry [when I scored]," he added. "It was the best goal of my career to date. It was a cracker, scored in the UEFA Champions League, in France and at the home of Lyon."
Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, meanwhile, was another of those who stuck with the club when they were relegated in 2007 and his loyalty was rewarded with a first European appearance. "It was a dream to play in European competition," the Chilean said. "Furthermore, my team-mates put in a fantastic performance. When we saw our supporters in such jubilant mood after the game, that made us feel even better. It went perfectly for us in that we scored twice and didn't concede."
With their passage through to the group stage now that much closer, Bravo has called on La Real to demonstrate the same confident style that has led them to the point of qualification. "In football, anything can happen," he warned. "However, we hope to avoid any negatives as we want to continue in the same way we started out in this tie. Our ambition and expectation must remain the same as they are our best weapons."
That cautious optimism is mirrored among La Real's fans, who will fill the Anoeta on Wednesday night. Indeed, with demand for tickets so high, San Sebastian's mayor is considering placing giant screens in the city on a night the entire blue and white family will be dreaming of regular UEFA Champions League football in the season ahead.
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