Villarreal kick off 2020 with a visit to the Anoeta. This should be a fun match; Villarreal have had pretty good success here in recent years, but this edition of La Real are the best in a while.
Our opponents: Real Sociedad are one of the historical pillars of Basque football. Based in San Sebastian, their best years were the 1980’s, when they won the league twice in a row, finished second two other years, and won the Copa del Rey, making it to the semis two other times. During that period, La Real, as Athletic Club still does, signed only Basque players, but that ended in 1989 when they signed John Aldridge from Liverpool. Now, while they have a large academy and still draw on local talent, they do play an active role in the transfer market on occasion.
It hasn’t all been great for the blue-and-white side, though—in 2007 they were relegated for the first time in over 50 years, and it took them three years to get back. (When they did, their first match was against Villarreal at Anoeta, and they won 1-0).
In recent years, I’ve frequently thought that La Real was a better team than their league position indicated, but that coaches (especially Eusebio Sacristan) held the team back. That doesn’t seem to be true now—their current coach, Imanol Alguacil, has coached youth and cantera sides for La Real, took over as interim coach twice, was appointed head coach this year and has received a contract extension already.
Look for the home side to come out in a 4-3-3 with Willian Jose in the middle, flanked by Mikel Oyerzabal and Portu (€10m signing from Girona). Young Swede Alexander Isak (€6.5m from Dortmund) can come off the bench and add spark, too. 23 goals between that lot, and their star creator, Real Madrid loanee Martin Ødegaard, has four more. Now 21, he seems to be in the perfect setup at San Sebastian and has been wowing everyone this season.
Probably Mikel Merino (€12m from Newcastle in 2018) and homegrown Ander Guevara will be the other midfielders—Asier Illaramendi is ut for sure and veteran David Zurutuza is unlikely.
The back four will miss Elustondo, but ex-Madrid man Diego Llorente, Zaldua, Zubeldia, and ex-Arsenal fullback Nacho Monreal make an OK good back line ahead of (probably) Ramiro in goal. But the strength of this team is definitely in its attack!
Villarreal are the same, of course, though of late their goalscorers have been sputtering a bit. The team news is that Alberto Moreno is back in the squad, so too Ruben Peña, so there’s no place for Funes Mori or Morlanes now (much less Caceres and Leo Suarez).
Santi Cazorla has not started in awhile, and maybe he won’t here either, but I would certainly look for him to play a role at some point. Probably Coach Calleja goes with the Moi—Iborra—Anguissa—Trigueros—Samu group to surround Gerard as he has recently, with Santi, Toko Ekambi, Ontiveros and Bacca options off the bench.
All-time record: Villarreal have done well against La Real in the Primera, both home and away: 7-5-4 at home, and an impressive 8-5-3 in the Anoeta. Last year we won this fixture 1-0 with a Gerard header (a big three points late in the season for us), though in 2018 we lost 3-0, our first loss in the league at this ground in eight years.
Prediction: This should be a fun match to watch with lots of chances for both sides, you’d think. I’ll say a 2-2 draw, but that might be more wishful thinking than anything. I believe this Sociedad team is quite good and ought to finish in the top five.