Manchester United will be up against some familiar faces when they meet Real Sociedad in the Europa League last-32. But will David Silva and Adnan Januzaj haunt them?
Thursday’s encounter at the Juventus Stadium in Italy – moved due to coronavirus travel restrictions – will be Man Utd’s chance to reclaim some form. They have slipped further behind local rivals Manchester City in the Premier League title race after a stuttering 1-1 draw at West Brom on Sunday.
It was a lacklustre performance from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side after a 120-minute battle against West Ham in the FA Cup on Wednesday. They make a return to Europa League action on Thursday after finishing third in their Champions League group.
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Real Sociedad have been the surprise package in La Liga this season – they were the league leaders at one stage – although they have now dropped seven points behind the top four.
But wins against lower-table Getafe and Cadiz plus draws against top-six rivals Villarreal and Real Betis in their last four La Liga outings still sees them in a strong position for another Europa League outing next term.
United will need to be wary of the familiar faces in Sociedad’s ranks who could come back to haunt them over the next two encounters…
David Silva: Still a midfield maestro
Silva’s midfield masterclasses have continued since returning home to Spain. He left Man City after 10 years in the Premier League to complete a surprise move back to La Liga with Sociedad last summer.
From the outside, the move to join a club with an unremarkable recent history, little in the way of major financial transfer investment, and one runners-up spot in La Liga in nearly 40 years, may have looked uninspiring. But there was plenty to convince Silva to spend what may be his top-flight swansong on the banks of the Bay of Biscay.
Miguel Gonzalez, who covers the club for Basque newspaper El Diario Vasco, told Sky Sports last year: “Silva makes the players around him better. Portu is another player who is playing at a higher level from last season. Silva is a player who plays important passes very well and taking into account Portu and [Alexander] Isak are very fast players in attack, and so having someone like Silva who can thread passes through makes a big difference.”
Could Sociedad’s fall down the table be linked with Silva’s recent injury struggles? Having turned 35 in January, he has been in and out of the side since the end of November due to muscle and hamstring injuries. Before then, Sociedad had lost just once in the league. Without Silva’s constant presence, they won just one league game in December and January.
They have, however, won both La Liga games so far in February, with Silva featuring in back-to-back matches for the first time in two-and-a-half months. This includes a much-needed 87 minutes against Getafe on Sunday ahead of facing Man Utd this week.
Silva was also absent for two of Sociedad’s final three draws in the Europa League group stages, seeing them finish two points behind winners Napoli in Group F.
It’s clear how vital Silva has become for Sociedad in a short space of time, imitating his importance to Man City over the most successful decade in the club’s history. If anyone is aware of the damage he can cause opponents, it’s Premier League opponents – and especially Man Utd. Silva scored four times against them in Manchester derbies and United will be hoping for a rare ‘off night’ for the midfield maestro.
Adnan Januzaj: The former Utd outcast shining at Sociedad
While Silva was on the opposing sides against Man Utd, Januzaj came through the club’s academy. He made his debut in the 2013/14 season under David Moyes and began well, earning a new five-year contract in October 2013 and being nominated for BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year.
He made 35 appearances and scored four goals in all competitions in his first season with the senior squad, but never quite hit the same heights again for Man Utd. He made a total of 28 appearances under Louis van Gaal over the next two seasons, scoring just once more.
- Adnan Januzaj: I still love Man Utd so much
Januzaj was shipped out on loan to Borussia Dortmund and Sunderland before joining Sociedad on a permanent deal in the summer of 2017.
Still only 26, the winger has settled in Spain and has been a regular in the Sociedad squad, making over 20 La Liga appearances in each of his three full seasons so far. However, injuries have also played their part – the 2018/19 season in particular was hampered by knee issues, while coronavirus has also had an impact this term.
Ahead of facing his former club, Januzaj says he does not have anything to prove and shared his views on his time at United.
In quotes carried by the Daily Mail, Januzaj said: “I know my qualities, I know who I am. I don’t have to show United or anybody that I’m a good player. I just have to believe in myself.
“When I played my first season at United and came through the academy, people were showing me love. The coaches were letting me enjoy my football. Then obviously when a coach [Van Gaal] comes who doesn’t show you love, it gets more difficult to prove yourself and be happy.
‘When you are a young boy and you’re being criticised for things you never did – the coach’s excuse was that I wasn’t training very well – I couldn’t understand. You play like you train. If I was doing well in games, I don’t think I was that bad in training. People had a bad image of me and that’s the one regret, that I had lot of people questioning my mentality.
“I was a bit scared of how I was going to fit in and the lifestyle, but today I’m really chilled and happy here [at Sociedad].
“I’ve learned a lot in terms of how to behave myself and stay calm. I worked a lot for the past few years on that. Somebody who works in this club helped me to be mentally more relaxed and let my football flow.
“I will tell you the truth, from my first year at United to now I’m a totally different player. I’ve changed a lot in terms of quality, confidence, and mentality. I’m enjoying my football. If you don’t enjoy it somewhere, you have to enjoy it somewhere else. Life doesn’t stop.”
While Januzaj will claim he has nothing to prove, his maturity as a player with Sociedad will pose a real threat if he features in the Europa League this week.
Premier League fans will remember Nacho Monreal. In a similar path to Silva, after six-and-a-half years with Arsenal, the defender returned to his home country of Spain, signing for Sociedad in the summer of 2019. He featured in every Europa League group game earlier this season and has started in the last four La Liga matches.
There was also a short stint at Newcastle for midfielder Mikel Merino. He spent a year at St James’ Park, initially on loan but this was soon turned into a five-year permanent contract. However, he made just 17 Premier League appearances with one goal before returning to Spain with Sociedad. He has now blossomed into a Spain international and was the club’s stand-out performer last season.
📊 @alex_isak’s last FIVE games in @LaLigaEN.
⚽ SIX GOALS.
🅰 One assist.
🔥 Keep it up!#AurreraReala pic.twitter.com/9xuZUF3hk8
However, Sociedad’s biggest star is forward Mikel Oyarzabal. The 23-year-old Spain international has spent his entire career at the club and has been a first-team regular since 2015. In 218 appearances across all competitions, he has scored 61 goals, although is yet to score in the Europa League this season.
Another name to keep an eye on is Alexander Isak. The Sun reported in 2016 that Man Utd had sent scouts to watch the forward when he was a teenage prodigy at his hometown club AIK in Sweden. However, he opted to join Borussia Dortmund but struggled for game time at the German club. He eventually signed for Sociedad in June 2019 and has developed into a key player.
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