The forgotten story of almost champions Real Sociedad 2002-03

Liverpool FC are a famous club in England. Before the 2010–11 football season, they were the joint most winners of the English top flight football. They last won a league title when India was in an economic crisis. In 1990 to be precise. After that closest they came to winning the league was last year. They had their destiny in their own hands and faced another title contender. All they had to do was not lose and they would have virtually sealed the title and ……. this happened. Depending on your loyalties it was either cruel or poetic. There really is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Something eerily similar happened 12 years before in Spain. Wanna see how?

  • One surprising contender capturing the imagination – Real Sociedad and Liverpool.
  • One strong team occasionally slipping but always within striking distance – Real Madrid and Manchester City
  • Another strong team in the hunt but ultimately fading albeit slightly in the end – Deportivo La Coruna and Chelsea
  • One traditional team floundering through out the season – Barcelona and Manchester United

Real Sociedad are a Basque football club based in San Sebastian, Spain. They have a famous rivalry with Athletic Bilbao. Athletic Bilbao are famous for their Basque only policy, a policy that has seen multiple re-definitions and relaxations. Real Sociedad also had a Basque only policy till 1989 when they signed Liverpool’s John Aldridge.

The 2002-03 La Liga season is a watershed in the history of football. White Rice Vellasamy was a hardcore Liverpool and English football fan till that point. The EPL season that year ended on 11th May 2003. Liverpool and Chelsea were in a direct shootout for a place in the lucrative UEFA Champions league. Liverpool briefly ignited hope but ultimately lost to a Jesper Gronkjaer winner. Vellasamy’s university exams also ended around the same time. Serie A had a haphazard coverage in India but la liga had decent coverage. During the holiday season Vellasamy had nothing to do at night than to watch whatever football was on the idiot box. I am guessing that since there weren’t any summer tournaments that year, the liga was extended to end on June 22nd nearly a month after the all Italian champions league final.

This broke Vellasamy’s attraction to kick and rush bluster of English football. It was when Vellasamy awoke to the truth that is quality technical football. It was slower and deliberate. It showed me the importance of possession. It showed how highlights reels can be used to show that Heskey is better than Ronaldo …. or maybe not. Tooting my own horn aside, this was a season where Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s adamance and belligerence grabbed the EPL trophy from Arsenal in exciting fashion. That was only second to the chase in la liga. There were 3 genuine contenders fighting tooth and nail and 5-6 other sides who gave hell to top sides.

The Pre-season

My then second soon to be first team was Barcelona. Louis Van Gaal returned for a second spell and was sacked mid-way through the season. Radomir Antic was made the interim manager. There were awful in the league but were superb in the champions league. The league form was so poor that the only way for champions league football next season was to win it but they lost at home to the eventual runners-up Juventus at the first hurdle. Naturally I didn’t want Madrid to win the league so I supported La Real.

Real Sociedad had finished 13th for 3 seasons in a row before the start of the 2002-03 season. There were no great transfer activity too. The only notable transfer was the addition of the winger Valeri Karpin. It was Karpin’s second spell at the Anoeta. Also, hired was the French manager Raynald Denoueix, a former manager of the year and ligue 1 winner in France with Nantes. The only notable player was a young inexperienced Xabi Alonso. I wasn’t really familiar with tactics and formation back then but from what I can gather rather lazily is that they played a conventional 4-4-2 lined-up like this:

I have no idea what the expectations were for the txuri-urdin but they started the season in spectacular fashion winning 4 and drawing 1. This included an opening day thrashing of their arch-rivals Athletic 4-2, a thrilling 3-3 draw with Betis and another 3-2 win in a thriller away at Osasuna. This would prove no fluke as no team manage to beat them in the first half of the season. The closest they came to losing in was in the tough Mestalla when they were losing 2-0 with a quarter of the match to go but they would show their resilience to draw 2-2. They won 13 and drew 6 matches. They had a lot of substance.

The Squad

La Real also had a helluva lot of style. Nihat and Kovacevic, dubbed “Little and Large” by Phil Ball, regularly tore apart league defences. They scored 43 goals between them. Kovacevic was the classic centre forward who would bully defenders. He was great in the air and had a powerful shot. Nihat was quick and a good finisher. The duo had a terrific understanding, regularly providing assists for each other. I have rarely seen two strikers in tandem who had that much fun together that season.

Real Sociedad also had the best in-form midfield that season. Valeri Karpin, in his early 30s, ran defences ragged. I don’t remember him providing that many assists but he scored 8 goals. Not such a bad contribution from midfield. Many goals by Karpin came from pinpoint crosses by Javi de Pedro. A cantera product, de Pedro had what you could call a cultured left foot. I have not seen a winger or a full back who crossed so accurately. His early balls almost invariably ended up in the net put in usually by Nihat or Kovacevic.

The centre of the pitch was manned by the young Xabi Alonso. Another cantera product and El Capitan. He covered the defence and provided his trademark long balls. His outlets to Karpin and de Pedro more often than not ended up creating goal scoring opportunities. I don’t really remember how good the defence was so I am not going into them. I remember substitutes like Kwarme and Gabilondo providing crucial goals.

Match of the season

La Real had multiple great performances throughout the season. The aforementioned opening day thrashing of their arch-rivals, the 3-3 draw with Betis, a la manita (5-0) vs Rayo, the hard fought 2-2 draw with Valencia to save their unbeaten record but without a doubt their coupe de grace was the 4-2 win over the eventual champions Real Madrid. Do not let the scoreline fool you. Madrid were never in the game. La Real were relentless. Kovacevic opened the score inside 2 minutes. He got another after a neat finish inside 20 minutes. Not to be left behind, Nihat made it 3-0 just after the half hour mark. Just as they were showing the replays of Nihat’s neat goal, Ronaldo pulled one back for Madrid. Xabi Alonso scored the goal of the match just 2 minutes after Ronaldo scored to make it 4-1 inside 33 minutes. Javier Portillo made it 4-2 after 84 minutes to bring some respectability.

After flying high for most of the first half of the season, Real Sociedad had lost their way a bit but after the Madrid thrashing they were just 3 points behind Madrid. Madrid took some time to recover from that thrashing. They could only draw 1-1 in the Clasico at home against a poor Barcelona side and were thrashed by Samuel Eto’o’s Mallorca 5-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu. It was Real Madrid’s first league defeat at home in more than 2 years. They also let a 2-1 first leg lead slip at Juventus in what would be Nedved’s match.

The Title Chase

With 4 games to go, Real Sociedad led by just 1 point. Valencia and Celta Vigo would play spoilsport. Madrid travelled to the Mestalla and La Real went to Malaga. Valencia would lose to a Ronaldo brace in a game where they should have had at least a point. Sociedad neatly beat a stubborn Malaga by 2 goals in the last 12 minutes. The following week Valencia held Sociedad at Mestalla but La Real had a lucky break when Raul saved Madrid’s blushes after El Zar Alexandr Mostovoi, who had a habit of scoring against Real Madrid, opened the score at the Bernabeu. 2 games to go still Madrid trailed by 1 point. Celta should have won at the Bernabeu.

Celta Vigo were chasing a champions league spot and chase they would by beating Real Sociedad 3-2 at home. Atletico Madrid, in their return to the top flight and with nothing to play for, meekly surrendered at home to Real Madrid 0-4. Unfortunately for Real Sociedad their destiny was out of their hands. The last week saw Real Sociedad facing Madrid’s rivals Atletico and Madrid facing Real’s arch-rivals Athletic. Thanks to their thrashing at the Anoeta, La Real would win if Madrid didn’t win. Real Sociedad went on to comfortably win 3-0. Things were really interesting at the Bernabeu as Athletic equalized after Ronaldo gave Madrid the lead. Unfortunately for La Real, the Brazilian duo of Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo scored 1 goal each as Madrid comfortably won 3-1 to take the title.

The Aftermath

Real Sociedad would qualify for the prestigious and lucrative UEFA champions league the following season. Their squad couldn’t manage the strain of fighting on two fronts. They managed to qualify for the 2nd round from a tough group that had Juventus, Galatasaray and Olympiakos but were knocked out by Lyon 2-0 in the 2nd round. Their travails in the champions league meant the league form suffered and they barely managed to avoid relegation finishing 15th. Xabi Alonso left the Basque country for the wetter pastures of Liverpool. The manager Denoueix was gone too. Couple of relegation survivals later Real Sociedad were finally relegated in the 2006-07 season.

For one season, a mid-table team with barely any resources managed to lead for most of the season but ultimately failed to cross the line because of their inexperience. It was fun while it lasted but it seems almost unimaginable today what with Real Madrid and Barcelona stockpiling players like USA and USSR kept stockpiling nuclear weapons. It was also a time when the same 4 EPL/Serie A sides were repeatedly entering the champions league, Spain sent such varied teams like Villarreal, Real Betis, Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Osasuna. Oh how I wish those days were back!!

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