Asier Illarramendi poised for Real Sociedad return — a sign of giant strides by David Moyes

The return of Assier Illarramendi to Real Sociedad highlights thew strides being made under David Moyes, writes Andy Mitten.

Asier Illarramendi moved to Real Madrid in 2013 but has struggled to cement a place in the starting line-up. Manuel Queimadelos Alonso / Getty Images
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Real Sociedad manager David Moyes is not one for building hopes. The Scot would rather under promise and over deliver, politely telling fans to calm their expectations of European football on one of his nightly walks around San Sebastian.

At Manchester United, he was correct when he kept repeating there was a huge rebuilding job to do which would take time, even when it did not seem obvious, such as when they beat Bayer Leverkusen 5-0 away in the Uefa Champions League early in his reign.

At Real Sociedad, his line is similar. He wants to do what he did at Everton and improve the club gradually, season after season by making shrewd, value for money acquisitions in the transfer market, by promoting youth and by getting the absolute best out of the current squad of players, with whom he has formed an effective working relationship.

At Sociedad, that is a squad with a few ageing local heroes, plus a smattering of prodigious talents such as Carlos Vela, Esteban Granero and Sergio Canales who, through injury, bad luck, lack of opportunity or attitude, did not make it at the huge clubs to which they were once contracted.

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Moyes has added Asier Illarramendi to that list. The Basque midfielder was a surprise €40 million (Dh167.8m) transfer to Real Madrid aged 23 in 2013, but he was used sparingly by coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Overcome by anxiety when he arrived, he failed to settle quickly. After five months, he had played just 532 minutes of league football and had finished the full 90 league minutes only once.

There is little shame in not standing out at the Bernabeu and no player can be blamed for moving there, even if it is to join a bulging squad.

But the next step down is usually a Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur or Valencia, not Real Sociedad, with their 23,000 average crowds and €50m annual budget for the whole club.

Illarramendi could have earned more by moving to England, where he is wanted by Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton, and Madrid could get a bigger transfer fee if he goes to England, but the Basque met his former club and indicated he wanted to come home and continue where he left off, playing in a team good enough to reach the Champions League.

Sociedad have lost Claudio Bravo to Barcelona and Antoine Griezmann to Atletico since he departed, but funds from those sales allowed them to offer a club record €16m for Illarramendi, who will be able to play as a central midfielder bringing balance and creativity to the team as they seek to improve on last season’s 11th-place finish.

With new signing Jonathas having scored 14 top-flight goals last season for Elche, plus Argentine goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, 23, now a permanent signing and promising Portuguese winger Bruma, signed on loan from Galatasaray, Moyes has improved his squad despite failing to land striker Danny Ings from Burnley.

Moyes’ best player is defender Inigo Martinez, one of 14 members of the current squad who have graduated from the youth system.

Two more gems have been spotted in the club’s juvenile ranks and have been promoted to the first team.

Such moves delight fans, who were satisfied with the opening result, a goalless draw at Deportivo La Coruna.

But the return of Illarramendi is his biggest coup.

After his team played Real Madrid last season and were defeated 4-1 in Madrid, Moyes struggled to pronounce Illarramendi when talking to the media.

He will have plenty of time to perfect it now that Illarramendi will be wearing Sociedad colours this season.

Eibar enjoying top spot while it lasts

On Monday morning, near a prominent Scotland the Brave mural, the narrow street behind the west goal at Eibar’s tiny Ipurua ground was briefly blocked while a groundsman and three helpers loaded two full-size nets onto a waiting lorry.

They were needed at the training ground for when the team returned from that night’s opening Primera Liga game at Granada.

The disruption was brief, unlike the construction of Eibar’s new stand, which has boosted their capacity from 5,200 to 6,200.

The new build has angered local residents in the tower blocks which overlook the ground. Their free view of watching top-flight Spanish football has been blocked and their white flags of protest are prominent.

They make a change from the rest of the town of 27,000 in the narrow Ego valley between Bilbao and San Sebastian, where massed red-and-blue-striped flags of Eibar hang from balconies.

Eibar’s residents in a town once famous for making small armaments are rightly proud that their club was the smallest ever to get promoted to the Primera Liga last season on average crowds of just 2,900.

They had been the smallest club in the second division the previous season, but once they hit the top level crowds increased to 4,600, paying the lowest prices in the league as Eibar stunned their fans with a superb first half of the season.

After 22 games they were comfortable in eighth, closer to Europe than the predicted relegation. Then they collapsed, and the second half was a disappointment.

Eibar lost 15 times in 17 games and slipped into the relegation zone for the first time in the penultimate weekend.

They had to beat relegated Cordoba at home and were leading 3-0, but they also had to rely on Deportivo La Coruna losing at champions Barcelona, which they soon were, 2-0, thanks to two Lionel Messi goals.

But then Depor scored twice and, even with other twists that night, it meant that despite having a superior goal difference, Eibar went down on the head-to-head rule.

Eibar were disconsolate, yet there was yet another twist and a happy ending out of unfortunate circumstances elsewhere. Eibar were reprieved after Elche were relegated for financial irregularities.

On Monday, as the groundsmen tended the Ipurua pitch ahead of its first match, Sunday’s Basque derby against the nearby giants Athletic from Bilbao, Eibar played their opening game of the season at Granada.

A surprise 3-1 win, with goals from Adrian, Gonzalo Escalante and Mikel Arruabarrena, handed them victory at Nuevo Los Carmenes.

The win ensures they are now the top team in Spain and images of the league table are being pinned around bars in the town, marking a turnaround from the despair of May’s relegation. They should enjoy it while it lasts.

Neymar flirting with United for new deal?

Excuse Manchester United fans for being sceptical about the likelihood of Brazilian striker Neymar ending up at Old Trafford.

The stories are correct. United are in the market for the best players in the world and the English club, who want a superstar signing, maintain they will not be beaten for money by anyone.

Unfortunately for United, there is more to it than money. Neymar is a starter in the best team in the world. He is winning trophies, he is loved by fans, he lives in a city where he speaks the language and which has direct flights to his home in Sao Paulo. He and his people are also after a pay rise because he earns €10.5 million (Dh43.9m) per year, lower than Lionel Messi as expected, but also Luis Suarez, Daniel Alves and Andres Iniesta.

What better way to get that than flutter your eyelashes at potential suitors? There is always the risk that the strategy will lead to your exit, but it is a risk many players and their agents have taken.

Valencia make it five

Valencia’s aggregate win over Monaco means Spain has a record five teams in this season’s UEFA Champions League draw, which will be held on Thursday. New signing Alvaro Negredo was superb as he got a vital away goal in the principality to ensure Valencia will join Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Europa League champions Sevilla in the draw.

The home of the European, world and Europa League winners, Spain is the planet’s current pre-eminent football nation and rivals would prefer to avoid Spanish clubs.

Player of the week - Pichu

Sporting Gijon’s goalkeeper was outstanding against Real Madrid as the Asturians held Rafa Bentiez’s side to a goalless draw. It was Sporting’s first game in the top flight since promotion, but Pichu, 31, has experienced the highs and lows at the club. Now in his eighth season with Sporting – though he has only been the first-choice keeper since 2012 – he was crucial in keeping Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of Madrid’s forward line at bay.