'We all want the Champions League' - Oyarzabal urges Real Sociedad to give surprise season a final flourish

by Thomas ALLNUTT, Patxi VRIGNON-ETXEZAHARRETA
Mikel Oyarzabal (right) is adamant Real Sociedad can hold onto fourth place in La Liga this season and qualify for the Champions League

"I am happy where I am, I feel loved," says Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad's captain and creator, often linked with Manchester City but whose best chance of playing in the Champions League next season might be to stay where he is.

Real Sociedad are fourth in La Liga, one point ahead of Atletico Madrid, after Oyarzabal's penalty helped them beat Eibar on March 10, the league's last match that was played behind closed doors before fixtures were suspended completely.

A week earlier, another Oyarzabal penalty sent la Real through to their first Copa del Rey final in 32 years, this one against Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao for the first time ever. In February, they had each knocked out Real Madrid and Barcelona on the same night.

Oyarzabal, together with Martin Odegaard who is flourishing on loan from Real Madrid, has been at the heart of it. The Spanish number 10 who marauds off the left has been fouled twice as much as Lionel Messi and sits below only five players with 14 goals and assists combined.

It has already been a brilliant season and it is tempting to wonder if it will be judged a success too, regardless of how Real Sociedad place at the end of La Liga's sprint finish that begins on Thursday.

"Listen, not for me," Oyarzabal says, in an exclusive interview with AFP. "We are a few points ahead so what we all want is to sit in the Champions League, to live that competition next year.

"Everyone is completely plugged in now and it feels like a good time to fight for where we are."

- "Something beautiful" -

It is not only about where they are but how they got there, with many seeing Real Sociedad as the best team to watch in Spain this season.

"People can say nice things but it's more about what we feel," says Oyarzabal. "We feel comfortable, we feel happy and I think that shows in how we play.

"I'm proud of this team, of what we're doing. But we're 11 games away from achieving something beautiful, something exciting."

Capable of precision and pace in equal measure, la Real are full of surprises. Oyarzabal is too, a dancing dribbler with size 47 feet and a club captain already at the age of 23.

He watches the news every morning at the training ground over breakfast and has a business degree in administration and management.

"I think learning about leadership is important," he says. "Even as a footballer you are always with people, in fact it can be the most important part of the job."

His leadership as captain perhaps assumes even greater importance as La Liga gets set to resume under strict health guidelines this week for the first time in three months following the coronavirus crisis.

His home club Eibar have expressed doubts about restarting but Oyarzabal is convinced. "I feel safer than ever," he says. "We are adhering to all the protocols and I think everyone is being led by their conscience. We know this is serious.

"I don't feel fear because anyone can get it, it's not only in our hands, you can't say 100 per cent that nobody will touch you. We can only do everything we can to avoid it."

Oyarzabal admits their match without fans against Eibar felt "decaffeinated" but accepts empty stands is the price for the season completing. Yet the cup final against Bilbao, he says, must wait.

"It's a historic game, a final between two Basques where the atmosphere is everything and not just the atmosphere but the memories people create together before the game, during the game. This is everything," Oyarzabal says. "It has to wait for the fans."

If it waits beyond this season, though, they might be without Odegaard, their other sparkling attacking midfielder, whose first year of a two-year loan has gone so well Madrid might take him back.

"He's an example for everyone and this year has been good for him to gain confidence and prove he really is ready for anything," Oyarzabal says.

"We hope to have him as long as possible but we have to enjoy him while he's here and make sure he enjoys himself.

"It is a personal decision for him but he's happy here, he's found his feet. That should also be important when the time comes to make up his mind."

Oyarzabal could have a decision to make too if one of Europe's elite comes calling, with Pep Guardiola a known admirer in England.

"I'm happy where I am, I feel loved, I feel valued and at no time have I said that I will jump," says Oyarzabal.

"People talk too much, I want to focus on trying to do the best I can, like I have done so far, and to continue as a footballer here at la Real. I am where I want to be."

Mikel Oyarzabal (right) is adamant Real Sociedad can hold onto fourth place in La Liga this season and qualify for the Champions League.