Real Sociedad host rivals Athletic Bilbao in a mouthwatering Basque derby on Saturday, aiming to tighten their grip on third place in La Liga.
Having toyed with a top-four finish in recent seasons but ultimately lacking the stamina to cling on to it, Imanol Alguacil’s hopes things can be different in this campaign.
The coach spent a decade at the club as a player and has led them to sixth place finishes in 2020 and 2022, and fifth in 2021.
With veteran playmaker David Silva still pulling the strings, Brais Mendez on fire, Takefusa Kubo finding his spark again and Alexander Sorloth in potent form, La Real are on the verge of joining the title race, nine points behind leaders Barcelona after 16 games.
The Basque side are unbeaten in their last seven competitive matches and have been boosted by the return of striker Mikel Oyarzabal after a long injury lay-off.
Alguacil led Real Sociedad to their first trophy since 1987 when he guided them to the Spanish Cup in 2021, beating rivals Athletic 1-0, and they have a growing taste for success.
Their rivals from Bilbao are improving too, enjoying a strong campaign under former Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde.
They are looking to dampen the excitement in San Sebastian and celebrate what is set to be an impressive milestone for captain Iker Muniain.
The midfielder drew level with the club’s third-highest appearance-maker Joseba Etxeberria on 514 matches last week and can overtake him on Saturday.
Athletic are seventh and only two points away from the top four themselves, six behind Real Sociedad.
All eyes in Spain will on the Basque derby, and not just because Real Madrid and Barcelona’s matches are postponed because of their participation in the Spanish Super Cup.
The players are relishing what is set to be a gripping clash too.
“I wish this game would come, it’s a derby and when the calendar comes out there are some games that you just want to happen already,” said Sorloth.
Real Sociedad are favourites for the game, partly due to the magisterial Silva, who scored against Almeria last weekend.
Mendez, who is well-rested after missing that match through suspension, hailed the 37-year-old, known as the “magician”.
“Since I arrived, he’s been called ‘magician’,” Mendez told Radio Marca.
“The truth is that what he does is magic, and it’s a nice nickname and what he’s called in training.”
Mendez is having the best season of his career and says that he is profiting from the former Manchester City star.
“I learn every day from him, he’s an example in every way,” added Mendez.
“He’s been showing how good he is for many years and the most impressive thing is seeing him day to day, seeing him in training, and seeing how into it he is, and how much he pushes.
“He gives everything in every training session and is an example that we all follow.”
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