It’s a rainy Sunday night in the Basque Country, just for a change. In the fading light, the dusky grey sky blows late-evening clouds over Anoeta, around whose scaffolded and concrete structure the ants scurry as kick-off time looms. It’s one of those moments when you think you’re at the centre of the galaxy – that nowhere else can be as important as this, and you’re desperate to get inside. Real Sociedad v Real Madrid feels like the focus of the week, the penultimate game of the 4th ‘jornada’ in La Liga, although on the previous day the opening of Atlético’s new Wanda Metropolitano must have cultivated similar sensations.
Whatever – it’s always a big night when Real Madrid are in town, and especially when the home side are on such good form. Four straight wins (three in the league and one in the Europa League) has got the locals buzzing, and even the Spanish press appear to have noticed. Real Madrid, the champions of everything now, it would seem, have started the season rather less impressively, and are in danger of losing early sight of Barcelona, still on maximum points after a stuttering 1-2 win at Getafe on Saturday.
There are some interesting side dishes to accompany the main plate too. Weirdly, Gareth Bale’s goal in Anoeta 72 games before, scored after a 0-0 draw with Manchester City, was the beginning of a consecutive run of scoring which now threatens to equal Santos’ 54 year-old record in the same stadium where the run began. Bale himself, struggling for form and increasingly questioned by the Madrid press, has scored every time he’s trodden the lush green turf of Anoeta. Maybe it reminds him of Wales. Can he repeat the feat today? Probably.
More awkwardly, Imanol Agirretxe sits on the Sociedad bench, three months short of the two-year anniversary of the fatal game in the Bernabéu where he was injured by Keylor Navas in a fortuitous but nevertheless rather rough challenge. On a splendid run at the time, he has hardly played since, and has suffered in noble silence. When asked in an interview, two months ago, whether Navas had enquired after his progress, or rung him to offer some words of comfort, Agirretxe replied with a simple ‘no’. If he gets on later tonight, it could be interesting.
The Madrid-focused press are worried, however, and have been bleating all weekend the message that their flock is fatally weakened. Ronaldo is sitting out the final game of his league suspension, Kroos, Kovacic and Benzema are injured, and Marcelo is also suspended. With so many alternative riches to call upon, one suspects it hardly matters – but the press is busy preparing the ground for a possible defeat, soaking the wood so it won’t catch fire. Even Eduardo, in the first Quiniela of this new cycle, has picked Real Sociedad.
It’s a well-worn trick, but the same journalists fail to point out that Real Sociedad are also missing their first-choice centre-backs, the excellent Iñigo Martinez and Raúl Navas. Both players are central to Sociedad’s ability to bring out the ball from the back, and their absence is significant – but not to the widespread gaggle who only see the Spanish league through white-coloured spectacles. It’s okay – it’s the way things are. We cannot subvert the laws of nature.
But the present Madrid are a great side. From the off, the black-shirted ones make their intentions clear, and push up a high line on the hosts, rushing the centre-backs and cutting the channels to the organisers, Illarramendi and Zurutuza. Sociedad have played four previous games in which they have dominated possession and picked off their opponents, but Madrid are no prima-donnas, and their fierce physical approach and competitive edge put the home side off their stride. It isn’t long before the first goal, surprise starter Borja Mayoral hitting home a loose bouncer after Sergio Ramos holds off the home defence by pushing backwards with the ball at his feet. Madrid deserve it. They look sharp and focused, shaken into action by Zidane’s criticism of their allegedly casual attitude last week.
There are some young guys sitting in front of me, not the usual paid-up members who you get used to seeing and chatting with. One of them comments that ‘Modric es la hostia’ (Modric is the Holy Host) which just about sums it up. The little Croatian seems able to get out of any jam, turning instinctively into space that appears not to exist, then sending a perfect pass 40 yards with the outside of his foot to a team-mate. He uses every part of his right foot – inside, outside, back and top – at the flick of some instinctive switch. His physical insignificance contrasts with his mastery of the game, with his manipulation of space. And just as you awake from your meditation on how good he is, Isco produces something similarly impossible – running like a bow-legged old man for the bus, always looking as though he is about to topple from the sheer effort of pumping his little legs at a speed disproportionate to their design – but always emerging mystically with the ball. Sociedad’s midfielders cannot cope with him, but the equaliser arrives nevertheless, the young left-back Kevin Rodrigues volleying home from a cross provided by the busy-bee right-back, Alvaro Odriozola.
Young Odriozola is also the Holy Host, and like a divine presence has appeared from nowhere. Real Sociedad have a habit of producing full-backs from the fecund womb of their unparalleled youth system, but Odriozola is something else. Like a cross between the early Dani Alvés and the current Kyle Walker, he is simply sensational and potentially better than both. He never stops, is very fast, and his crossing is improving. The excellent Theo Hernandez caught him out of position at times, but the young Basque is destined for wonderful things. I saw him play against my son three years ago in the youth league here, and he was distinctly ordinary. Whatever he eats for breakfast now, I’d like to have some. One to watch – although unfortunately he’ll be at Barcelona or Manchester City before long.
Cutting to the chase, Kevin Rodrigues hit the bar and from the ensuing break, Mayoral appears to foul Diego Llorente, but the ref plays on and Rodrigues, bravely returning from the opposite area, slides the ball into his own net. On such events are leagues eventually decided (but forgotten about). In the second half, Sociedad enjoy the main share of possession, but Gareth Bale, waking from his torpor, sprints at an inhuman speed past the poor Rodrigues (who is no slouch), wins the ball in a high-speed tussle and lifts it wonderfully over Rulli’s despairing dive. It might change Bale’s season, and it knocks the wind out of the host’s sails.
Sociedad will do just fine this season, but Real Madrid are kind of scary. They’re good to watch, they have an infinity of top performers, but most importantly they are fiercely competitive. If Zidane thought otherwise, the stuff that annoyed him last week wasn’t evident at all here in Anoeta. Barcelona may well overcome the public trauma of Neymar’s departure and the players’ obvious discontent with the current administration of their club, but to win back the crown they will need a sharper dagger in their teeth than the one which currently glints from the mouths of Real Madrid.