Real Sociedad visit rivals Athletic Bilbao for a Basque derby battle in La Liga on Saturday, trying to protect their hold on fourth place.
Imanol Alguacil’s La Real are aiming to qualify for the Champions League, which they last managed in 2013, although Villarreal are steaming in behind them after beating Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu last weekend.
Real Sociedad have only participated in Europe’s premier competition twice in the 21st century — in 2003 and 2013 — and a decade on, are aiming to join the continent’s elite again.
Blocking their way, awaits a hurting Athletic Bilbao, badly wounded by their Copa del Rey semi-final defeat by Osasuna earlier in April.
Los Leones have a chance to make amends in front of their supporters at San Mames by denting their rivals’ bid for Champions League football and boosting their own chances of playing in Europe next season.
Real Sociedad have 51 points from 28 games, four points ahead of Villarreal in fifth, and six in front of Real Betis, sixth. Athletic are seventh, 11 points behind their rivals.
“La Real have had a very good year and are towards the top of the table, but in a home derby you have to give everything you’ve got,” said Athletic defender Yeray Alvarez.
“We’re going to have ‘La Catedral’ behind us and that is practically like playing with an extra player.”
Real Sociedad coach — and former player — Alguacil boasts a strong derby record, with six wins, two draws and two defeats since taking over in 2018.
The highlight of his time thus far is the Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic in 2021, after which he celebrated in his post-game news conference by donning a shirt and screaming a club chant.
Real Sociedad captain Asier Illarramendi, 33, may play in his final Basque derby, with his deal expiring at the end of the season.
“I don’t know if it will be the last, but it could be, yes, it could be,” he said.
“It’s true I’m out of contract but right now I’m not thinking about that, I’m focused on the team’s objective, which is qualifying for Europe, staying in fourth place, and this is an important game to keep that position.”
Athletic romped to an emphatic 4-0 victory over Real Sociedad last season at home in La Liga, but Illarramendi said the game was history now.
“That’s more than forgotten, all derbies are different and this one will be too,” said the former Real Madrid midfielder.
Villarreal, who have gone six games unbeaten in the topflight including earning a 2-0 win over Real Sociedad, hosted Real Valladolid on Saturday.
Leaders Barcelona visit Getafe on Sunday, while Real Madrid, second, face Cadiz on Saturday.
Girona striker Taty Castellanos, on loan from New York City, was left in tears in the dressing room at Camp Nou after missing a big chance on Monday against the Catalans in the 0-0 derby draw. His coach Michel backed him to bounce back, and the visit of bottom-of-the-table Elche provides an excellent chance to add to his tally of six goals.