Real Sociedad dreaming of going all the way, 20 years on from pushing the Galacticos until the end
LaLiga finds itself in the rather awkward position where it wants the competition to be competitive internally while also desperate for the 'big two' to remain the behemoths they are, because Real Madrid and Barcelona are good for business.
President Javier Tebas insists LaLiga is, in sporting terms, the most competitive league in the world, something he believes is proven by the performances of Spanish teams in Europe over the past 20 years or so.
To his credit, the incredibly divisive figure of Tebas has done plenty of good for Spanish football. In general it is far more financially stable than when he was elected in 2013, and the centralised sale of TV broadcast rights has levelled the playing field a little more.
Fairly or not, though, there are many who feel that there only being two – or three in some years – teams capable of winning the league shows its lack of competitiveness.
But when a club does rise above the rabble, the financial disparity between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest makes the achievement of simply challenging all the more impressive.
This time it's Real Sociedad, and on Sunday they could make a statement.
La Real out to put the big boys on notice
The omens aren't great.
Real Madrid have lost only one of their last 15 LaLiga home games against La Real (W12 D2), the one exception coming in May 2019.
But there's something a bit different about this vintage.
Until the slender 1-0 Copa del Rey defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou on Thursday, La Real's nine-match winning streak across all competitions was the best such run they have managed since returning to LaLiga for the 2010-11 season.
Sitting third heading into the weekend, La Real are seven points clear of fourth-placed Atletico Madrid and already look near-certainties for the Champions League.
Defeat to Barca in the week was undoubtedly a setback, but it provided yet more evidence of them not being easy to beat.
The fact their 38 points from 18 matches is just two shy of a club record set in the 2002-03 season – more on that team later – highlights just how impressive they've been generally.
Yet, it doesn't tell the whole story. Imanol Alguacil has overseen this start to the campaign despite losing Alexander Isak to Newcastle United and then seeing his replacement Umar Sadiq succumb to a serious knee injury – from which he still hasn't recovered – after playing just 82 minutes for his new club.
The neat and intelligent Martin Zubimendi thrives in defensive midfield; 36-year-old David Silva continues to defy his age as the number 10; Robin Le Normand has developed into one of the most under-rated centre-backs in the league; Brais Mendez has taken their midfield to a new level; and Alexander Sorloth – who once scored no Premier League goals in a year at Crystal Palace and netted just four all last season for La Real – is the unlikely talisman up top.
The big Norwegian has scored eight goals, none of which have been penalties, in LaLiga. Only Robert Lewandowski (13) has more, while Sorloth ranks third for non-penalty expected goals (xG) with 6.0.
We can't call it a title challenge yet. They are still six points behind Barca having played a game more than the Blaugrana.
But with just over half the season still to go, La Real find themselves in position to pounce should Xavi's side let up – providing they can retain their own momentum.
Win at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday and everyone else will begin to take them a little more seriously as well.
Two points from immortality
La Real have been here before.
Their flirt with the title in the 2002-03 season is probably the best example of a so-close-yet-so-far tale in modern Spanish football.
It effectively came out of nowhere, too.
Four successive seasons of mid-table obscurity had offered no hint of what was to come, and what followed that campaign made it all seem like a farfetched dream.
La Real pushed a Madrid side that included Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos to the wire, even beating them 4-2 at Anoeta to reinvigorate their campaign after a chastening derby defeat to Athletic Bilbao in late 2002 was followed by something of a blip.
The Basques headed into the final three games of the season knowing nine points would secure the rarest of title wins.
They had risen to most challenges to that point. Their little-and-large striker duo of Darko Kovacevic and Nihat Kahveci plundered goals at will, racking up 43 between them; Xabi Alonso gave them almost ceaseless control in midfield; Valery Karpin and Javier de Pedro provided ammunition from the flanks.
But it couldn't have been a shock that a team without a league title since 1982 crumbled in the end. A draw at home to Valencia was followed by defeat to Celta Vigo in Galicia, while Madrid beat Atletico Madrid.
La Real's win over Los Colchoneros on the final day of the season was insufficient to keep hopes alive as Madrid comfortably saw off Athletic.
It was a valiant effort, with La Real edged out by two points when all was said and done, but it was not the start of a prosperous new era. What followed was four seasons of dicing with relegation, the last ultimately claiming them and leading to three campaigns in the second tier.
The difference this time? Stability, consistency. The past six years have essentially confirmed La Real as a top-half team, finishing sixth or higher four times, including in each of the last three.
Imanol has been in charge for those three, moulding La Real into a highly organised, high-pressing and dynamic side. But their institutional excellence goes deeper than that, with synergy a key priority from top to bottom, hence how 15 members of the first-team squad have come up through the academy or the B team. Make that 16 if you include the coach himself.
In all likelihood, La Real probably won't get that close to becoming the first team to upset the established order of the historical 'big three' since Valencia in 2004. Barcelona and Real Madrid are still too big for most to really go toe-to-toe with over a 38-game season, regardless of Tebas' changes.
But with arguably a far more talented squad than 20 years ago, La Real are much better equipped to at least make title challenges a regular dream.