Why Real Sociedad spell danger for Man United in Europa League

The former Old Trafford prodigy with a point to prove, the ex-Man City wizard still starring at 35 and the one-time Liverpool star taking care of the club’s philosophy… why Real Sociedad spell danger for Manchester United in tricky Europa League test

  • Manchester United face Real Sociedad in Turin in the Europa League tonight
  • Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under no illusions about difficulty of the last-32 tie
  • Sociedad topped LaLiga when draw was made but have since slipped back
  • They have former United wonderkid Adnan Januzaj in their talented ranks 
  • Ex-Manchester City midfielder David Silva has been in excellent form this term
  • Sociedad have a possession-based style of playing but United could counter 

When Manchester United were paired with Real Sociedad back in December, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer declared: ‘It sounds like a Champions League draw.’

Indeed it does and while United remain the bookmakers’ favourites to go all the way and win the Europa League, they must first overcome the not inconsiderable hurdle of a Sociedad side that topped LaLiga when that draw was made.

United have managed to gain a small advantage in Thursday night’s first leg being switched from their Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastian to the Allianz Stadium in Turin.

Real Sociedad will present a tough Europa League assignment for Manchester United 

United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said the draw felt like ‘a Champions League tie’ 

The first leg on Thursday will be played on neutral territory at the Allianz Stadium in Turin 

That’s because of the strict Covid-19 travel rules that are making crossing borders a logistical headache for everyone, not least professional sports teams.

But given that Sociedad’s passionate support would have been absent anyway, playing on neutral territory in the home of Juventus may not make the slightest bit of difference.

Besides, there are many reasons Solskjaer described it as a draw to ‘keep everyone on their toes’. Here’s why United need to be wary of their Spanish opponents.

Sociedad are back in form

Solskjaer was all-too-aware that Sociedad were top of LaLiga when he spoke about their danger in the immediate aftermath of the draw.

They subsequently slipped back behind Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona but their form has rebounded in recent weeks and they now sit in fifth, seven points behind fourth-placed Sevilla.

So it’s still a possibility that Imanol Alguacil’s team could still qualify for next season’s Champions League with a top four finish.

Sociedad celebrate Alexander Isak’s decisive goal in their 1-0 win at Getafe last weekend

Sociedad manager Imanol Alguacil issues the touchline instructions during a recent match

Sociedad were top of LaLiga when the draw was made in December but slipped back. However, they still have a chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League

They’re unbeaten in four league games and have won their last two, 4-1 against Cadiz and 1-0 against Getafe, to warm themselves up for the challenge of facing United.

By contrast, Solskjaer’s side have seen their own title aspirations vanish into thin air with a sequence of just one victory in five Premier League games.

This uninspiring run included a shock home defeat to bottom side Sheffield United and draws against Arsenal, Everton and, most disappointingly, West Bromwich Albion.

While United did progress, somewhat sluggishly, into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup by beating West Ham last week, it’s far from the ideal preparation for the resumption of their European campaign.

A ghost of United teams past

Glance down the Sociedad teamsheet and one name leaps right out at United fans – Adnan Januzaj.

The Belgian winger was tipped to be the next big thing when he made his breakthrough at Old Trafford during the ill-fated tenure of David Moyes in 2013-14.

Januzaj looked set for great things but Louis van Gaal wasn’t convinced and he faded from the United picture. ‘He didn’t show me love,’ as the player put it in an interview with Sportsmail this week.

Adnan Januzaj was a United prodigy but didn’t have the best of times under Louis van Gaal

Januzaj rebuilt his career at Sociedad and will no doubt want to shine against United 

After unsuccessful loans at Borussia Dortmund and Sunderland, Januzaj, now 26, has done well at Sociedad, whom he joined for £9million in 2017.

Though he has been adamant in interviews he has nothing to prove to anyone at United – and probably would have succeeded had Solskjaer been in charge at the time – you just know Januzaj would love to come back and haunt them.

He hasn’t exactly set the world alight this season with just two goals and two assists but could well have one saved up for this tie, even if he still supports United and watches all their games.

The veteran City wizard

Yes, he may be 35 now and, yes, he is winding down his career at Sociedad, but David Silva will be pumped up to get one over Manchester City’s bitter rivals.

Having recently returned to the side following a hamstring injury, Silva could play some part over the two legs and he has a pretty good record against United.

He scored four times and set up another four goals in 18 Manchester derby outings in a glittering decade at the Etihad that saw Silva win four Premier League titles and 10 other domestic trophies.

David Silva may be 35 but the former Manchester City man is still a major influence 

Silva slips the ball past David de Gea to score Man City’s fifth goal in their famous 6-1 win

The Spanish wizard scored four goals and set up four more in 18 meetings with United at City 

Silva memorably nutmegged David de Gea to score City’s fifth goal in their 6-1 win at Old Trafford in 2011 before setting up Edin Dzeko for No 6.

And if you think he might not have the legs any more, consider the fact Sociedad won only one of nine league games during his injury absence between late November and early February.

Prior to that, they’d won six league games on the spin with him in the team.

A former Liverpool man guarding the club’s philosophy

Sociedad are rightly proud of their academy, which seeks out the most talented young players in the Basque region and schools them in the team’s brand of possession-based, attacking football.

Xabi Alonso and Antoine Griezmann are two of the famous names to come through there and former Liverpool midfielder Alonso is now in charge of the club’s B team.

This season’s first team squad contains no fewer than 16 academy graduates and Alonso, appointed in 2019, is responsible for keeping this pathway open.

Real Sociedad appointed Xabi Alonso (middle) as coach of their B team in July 2019

The midfielder certainly had plenty of bruising encounters with United when at Liverpool

Sociedad have a state-of-the-art training complex and believe in only signing kids at under-13 level, which allows them to play other sports first, and they don’t enter youth tournaments.

The current first team like to keep the ball and have played some attractive football this season. However, with United fine-tuned to counter-attack, they may find this keep-ball approach gets them into trouble.

One player to watch is Mikel Oyarzabal, who has overcome a hamstring problem to be fit for the first leg. The Spain international is only 23 but has been a Sociedad first-team regular for five years already, scoring 60 goals for the club.

A Swedish striker in great form

While some of United’s strikers have struggled to find the net of late, Sociedad have a man in superb form.

Swedish forward Alexander Isak was watched by United scouts as a teenager at his hometown club AIK. He ultimately signed for Borussia Dortmund but didn’t receive much game time there and joined Sociedad in 2019.

Swedish striker Alexander Isak is in fine form, with six goals in his last five matches

Isak, 21, has scored nine goals this season which doesn’t sound spectacular until you see that six of them have come in his last five league outings.

He is certainly someone United’s notoriously fragile defence will have to keep a close eye on.

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