Real Sociedad vs Athletic Club: A Basque derby at the heart of the title race

La Real face one of their toughest challenges yet, with Athletic determined to derail their rivals’ title challenge.

Real Sociedad have enjoyed an excellent start to the 2021/22 campaign, responding to their opening weekend defeat at Barcelona by stringing several wins together and climbing to the very top of the LaLiga Santander standings. The team from San Sebastián finished Matchday 8 and Matchday 9 in first position, announcing their title candidacy after several seasons of evolution under coach Imanol Alguacil.

This weekend, though, Real Sociedad have what may be their toughest test yet. They have the Basque derby against regional rivals Athletic Club on Sunday night, under the floodlights at 21:00 CET. It should be a special occasion in front of their home fans at the Reale Arena.

The side from Bilbao have had a good start to the season too and are just a few points behind the title challengers with a quarter of this LaLiga Santander campaign in the books. Marcelino has built a solid team in his 10 months on the job and they have only lost one match so far this season. If Athletic had turned some of their draws into victories, they too would be pushing for first position in the table.

With both Basque sides so high up the table, this will be one of the most important Basque derbies in several years. Real Sociedad fans are starting to dream of a first LaLiga Santander title since their back-to-back championships of 1980/81 and 1981/82, while Athletic Club supporters are convinced that this is the season they’ll return to Europe after a four-year absence.

Historically, this fixture has often been at the heart of the title race. The last time La Real were serious title challengers, in 2002/03, Athletic Club thrashed their rivals 3-0 in Bilbao when La Real were top of the standings, with this result ultimately costing the Txuri-Urdin and allowing Real Madrid to sneak that year’s championship by two points.

Spooling further back, to when Spanish football was dominated by these two clubs at the start of the 1980s, Real Sociedad won the league title in 1981/82 by defeating Athletic Club 2-1 on the final day of the season, before Athletic Club earned a 2-1 title-clinching derby win of their own two years later.

This weekend’s match won’t be so decisive, whatever the result is, as there is a long season still ahead. But, this might still be the Basque derby with the greatest title race implications in several years.

Athletic Club’s motivation for revenge

The players will be well used to the pressure, given that arguably the most important Basque derby ever took place earlier this year. On April 3rd of 2021, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad met at La Cartuja in Seville for the 2019/20 Copa del Rey final, a showdown that had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. That only increased the sense of expectation for this huge derby final.

Neither team wanted to lose, but somebody had to and, with Mikel Oyarzabal’s penalty proving to be the only goal of the game, La Real won the cup to end a trophy drought that had lasted since 1987.

Athletic Club will want some revenge for that heartbreaking loss when they take on their historic foes this weekend. They actually had a rematch just days after the cup final, which finished 1-1, but now Los Leones will relish the opportunity to deal Real Sociedad’s title aspirations a significant blow.

Besides the potential for revenge, Athletic Club will want to triumph in this weekend’s derby so that they can remember the winning feeling as they haven’t tasted victory in any of the past four matches against La Real. In addition to the draw and cup final defeat of April, Athletic Club lost the previous two Basque derbies. Not since August of 2019 have they won one. For the fans in Bilbao, that’s too long.

Familiar faces on both sides

While Real Sociedad and Athletic Club’s rivalry is one of the biggest in LaLiga Santander, there is always great respect between these teams and the players. Even if it’s still quite rare, at least at the senior level, some players even switch clubs and there will be a few participants this weekend who have experience of wearing the other colour of stripes.

In the Real Sociedad squad, starting goalkeeper Álex Remiro moved directly between Bilbao and San Sebastián in 2019, signing with La Real after his contract at San Mamés expired. He’ll know the Athletic Club forwards well and will hope to put his inside knowledge to good use.

As for Athletic Club, they pulled off a coup in the winter window of 2018 by signing Iñigo Martínez from their rivals through the triggering of the star centre-back’s release clause. That didn’t sit well with fans of the Txuri-Urdin, nor does the fact that current Athletic Club players Alex Petxarroman, Yuri Berchiche, Mikel Balenziaga and Dani García have Real Sociedad pasts too. 

This Sunday night, though, it’s all about the current colours as the blue and white stripes of Real Sociedad take on the red and white stripes of Athletic Club.

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Iñaki Williams breaks the record of 202 consecutive games in LaLiga Santander: he hasn’t lost a single match in five years and a half!

The Athletic Club striker has participated in all LaLiga Santander matches since April 2016. Since then, five coaches have passed through Athletic, three presidents through the United States White House and Real Madrid has won three more Champions League

History was made during Athletic Club’s Friday night clash with Deportivo Alavés at San Mamés this weekend. It was Iñaki Williams’ 203th consecutive appearance for the club in LaLiga Santander, moving him into first on the all-time rankings, over the legendary Real Sociedad player Juan Antonio Larrañaga, with the longest streak of consecutive games in the whole LaLiga Santander history. The former record of 202 games was set in 1993.

Williams’ incredible run began against Atlético de Madrid. He returned from an injury to play against Los Colchoneros back in the 2015/16 campaign, on April 20th 2016. After playing the final five matches of that season, he played in all 38 of Athletic Club’s games in 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19, 2019/20 and 2020/21, as well as the first 8 fixtures of the current campaign. In other words, there hasn’t been an Athletic Club LaLiga Santander match that hasn’t featured Williams during five years and a half, since a 1-0 win over Malaga CF all the way back in spring 2016.

At that time, Real Madrid only had won 10 Champions League trophies, the Spanish National Team was still the current European champion, Erling Haaland was still playing in the reserve team of Bryne FK, Stranger Things had not yet been released, and the president of the United States was still Barack Obama… and in all this time in which the world has changed so much, Iñaki Williams has not missed a single Athletic Club match in LaLiga Santander.

Williams’ story is a unique one. Born in Bilbao to a Ghanaian father and Liberian mother, he grew up in neighbouring Pamplona and started playing for local teams in the area. Since he lived far away from the complex, teammates would take turns at bringing him to training and Williams remains grateful for the support he received from those teammates and the various coaches and directors who helped him along the way. He was so talented that Athletic Club took notice while Williams was playing in Pamplona and he was soon incorporated into the club’s Lezama academy.

Playing for the Basque side’s B team, Bilbao Athletic, Williams really stood out and first-team coach Ernesto Valverde was so impressed with what he was seeing that he handed the youngster his first-team debut against Córdoba in December of 2014, aged just 20. A few months later, in February 2015, he netted his first goal for the team by scoring against Torino in the Europa League.

Before long, Williams had become Athletic Club’s talisman in attack, complementing Aritz Aduriz perfectly. By scoring big goals in big moments and by causing problems for opposition defences every time he produced one of his trademark sprints, Williams was key in the various successes enjoyed by Athletic Club over the following seasons.

Williams became so important that he was never dropped. It takes good health and a clean disciplinary record to set a consecutive appearance record like his, but it also requires the unwavering confidence of a coach – or coaches. Over the period of Williams’ 203 LaLiga Santander matches in a row, he has had five coaches and every one has consistently named him on their team sheets: the current coach Marcelino, Gaizka Garitano, Eduardo Berizzo, Cuco Ziganda and Ernesto Valverde.

In the boardroom, they believe in Williams too and, in 2019, he penned a nine-year contract that will run until 2028, a commitment rarely seen in modern football. No other player in LaLiga Santander had a contract that runs that far into the future (Jon Moncayola just renewed his contract for 10 seasons with CA Osasuna until 2031), but Williams and Athletic Club are a match made in heaven and they want this special bond to continue.

“I have always said that I am where I want to be,” he stated as he signed his new deal. “It’s a matter or pride for me to be linked with this great club for so many years, a club that has given me everything. Athletic Club always believed in me and this is my home.”

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