The Catalan giants went down 1-0 at the Anoeta, their fifth defeat in seven outings to that ground, and Rulli ensured his side kept a vital clean sheet to maintain their top-half charge in La Liga.
Rulli, 23, who is on loan with the Spanish side from Deportivo Maldonado, made a marvellous save to deny Arda Turan on the 30-minute mark, getting a strong right-hand to the ball after a deflected effort.
The Sociedad star then thwarted Lionel Messi and made a save late on down to his left from Andres Iniesta’s effort to put a big dent in Barcelona’s title challenge.
2) KOKE (ATLETICO MADRID) – 8.05
Diego Simeone’s midfield general showed once again why he is so important to Atletico and their La Liga title charge.
The 24-year-old Madrid-born star scored the Red and Whites’ third goal, combining brilliantly with Fernando Torres to head home, in a 3-1 success over Espanyol which leaves them just three points behind Barcelona with six matches left to play.
Indeed, it was Koke’s midfield and link-up play with Torres which was the key to the victory – given that Atletico had earlier trailed in the game through Pape Diop’s 29th minute strike.
Koke assisted Torres with a lobbed pass for the away side’s equaliser before playing his hand in Antoine Griezmann’s second-half strike which put Atleti firmly in control of the match.
3) CRISTIANO RONALDO (REAL MADRID) – 7.56
Barely a Valora Futbol week goes by without superstar Cristiano featuring somewhere in our top five players’ ratings.
The 31-year-old was on target for Real Madrid in the 4-0 home thrashing of Eibar, and in the process, became the first player in La Liga history to hit 30 goals in six consecutive seasons.
It was yet another record-breaking feat for the Whites legend and a true measurement of his remarkable consistency for the Santiago Bernabeu club.
Ronaldo assisted both Lucas Vazquez and Jese either side of his comfortable first-half finish, as Zinedine Zidane’s men bounced back comfortably from their disappointing Champions League defeat to Wolfsburg.
4) JESE (REAL MADRID) – 7.54
The 23-year-old forward scored in Real’s emphatic home win – and was a live-wire throughout for Zidane’s team.
Jese, a Los Blancos youth team graduate who has become a regular first-teamer at the Santiago Bernabeu this term, took advantage of Ronaldo’s amazing speed and wing play to latch onto his through ball and tap-in to an almost empty net, to make it 4-0.
The Las Palmas-born attacker’s energetic displays have given Real an extra dimension and he will be a key man as they hunt trophies on both fronts this term.
5) SERGIO ARAUJO (LAS PALMAS) – 7.27
The Argentine striker netted a second-half brace to help seal a big 3-1 victory at Deportivo La Coruna, Las Palmas’ fourth consecutive La Liga win.
Despite trailing to a Deportivo goal just after half-time, Araujo levelled the scoreline with a cool finish from the right-hand side of the penalty area.
David Garcia helped the away side into the lead with less than ten minutes to play on the clock before the 24-year-old secured the points, finishing off a fast-flowing counter attack move.
I first saw Mikel Oyarzabal playing for the ‘Sanse’ – the name that Real Sociedad uses for its reserve ‘B’ team – in early October at Real’s training ground, in a Segunda ‘B’ game in front of some 200 supporters. He didn’t stand out particularly, apart from the fact that he looked like an overgrown schoolboy (he more or less was) and his lime-green boots were gigantic. He takes a size 47, roughly equivalent to a size 13 in the USA, but his right foot is closer to a 48, which causes some mirth among his colleagues. Players like this, whose feet seem too heavy to carry them, are known as ‘patosos’ in Spanish, which translates as ‘clumsy’. Five months later, in the fourth minute of the home game against Barcelona, this time in front of 28,000 spectators and several million on TV, clumsy young Mikel rose rather gracefully to attack a vicious in-swinging cross from captain Xabi Prieto and bullet the ball high into the far corner of Claudio Bravo’s net. Luis Enrique stomped the turf in frustration as the young pretender enjoyed his moment, sliding on his knees towards the crowd. It was happening again. Luis Enrique’s worst moment last season came at this very same ground, with a similarly early goal. It changed Barcelona’s season, however, and focused them into the ruthless side they have since become, cementing Enrique’s tactical and motivational reputation at the same time.
Whether it changes the Catalans’ season again remains to be seen, but Oyarzabal’s goal has changed the face of La Liga quite radically, as predicted in this column last week. After the draw with Villarreal, the defeat in El Clasico and the rather edgy and unconvincing win against 10-man Atletico in the Champions League, Anoeta was last place Barcelona needed a trip to. Barca has not won there since 2007, and the last six league visits have resulted in five wins for Sociedad. It is now ‘La casa embrujada’ (the haunted house) according to Marca’s Oscar Badallo, and something eerie does seem to occur when Barcelona visit. The home side responds to the occasion, plays like there’s no tomorrow and the visitors cannot cope, becoming oddly impotent unlike at any other ground in Spain. It was not always thus, and before Real’s relegation in 2007 and their resulting three-year absence from the top flight, their supporters always complained that they received Barcelona too meekly, as if the traditional political solidarity between the two communities was an impediment to any really fierce rivalry on the pitch. Hostility was always reserved for the two big Madrid clubs and although that still remains true, Sociedad no longer indulge their Catalan visitors, which might have something to do with the personalities of some of Barcelona’s players, along with the rather patronising attitude shown towards the Basques in the King’s Cup in 2014.
Sociedad's last four results vs Barca
The reigning champions were out to solve their growing problem on Saturday but from where I was watching high up in the stands, Barcelona rarely convinced, particularly in the first-half. Luis Suarez was missing due to suspension and had he been there he might have taken more advantage of the fact that Real’s star defender, Inigo Martínez, was also absent. The otherwise fearful MSN, without its central figure in attack and acronym, seemed bereft of ideas and suddenly cut off from each other. Leo Messi had one of his strolling-for-no-particular-purpose days, and Neymar rarely tried anything apart from the diagonal inside run, which young Aritz Elustondo read each time. Elustondo is another surprise product from the youth team this season. David Moyes handed him his debut last season, but Eusebio has since accorded him first-team status and his positional sense and technique promise a bright future. Zubieta keeps producing top-flight players from the smallest region in Spain and on Saturday night another product of the youth system, Asier Illaramendi, was imperious. His relative failure at Real Madrid had everything to do with his quiet personality (little fish in a big pond) and nothing to do with his ability. Back home again, he thrives on responsibility.
As for Barcelona, they still lead by 3 points and have the head-to-head over both pursuers, so the present ‘crisis’ is only a relative one. If you’ve been as far as 12 points ahead of Real and eight ahead of Atlético, the sudden reduction in advantage looks serious. What is perhaps more accurate is to say that Barcelona appear to be hitting a downward slope at the wrong stage of the season, with spikes falling off the running shoes at the final bend. Perhaps it was inevitable. After 39 games undefeated, and the weird mojo that such apparent invincibility engenders, the sudden realisation that you’re mortal after all can come as a shock. Teams often do spiral once they’ve lost, and it can take a few weeks to recover. The trouble is a shortage of time to do so because Real Madrid, apart from their bafflingly inept display in Germany last week, seems to be on an upward surge. They dispatched Eibar easily enough on Saturday (4-0) with a team of reserves and recent bench-warmers like James Rodriguez, goalkeeper Kiko Casilla and Isco. Even Alvaro Arbeloa got a full game, after which he took in Barcelona’s defeat to Sociedad and then Twitter to praise the victors’ ex-Madrid players, Illarra and Esteban Granero. Gerard Pique of course responded from Anoeta’s dressing-room.
Pique would do well to focus his efforts on Wednesday’s return match in the Calderon, which promises to be a tough night for the cules, especially with Fernando Torres’ away goal complicating matters. Atletico need no hints from others, but will have taken note of how Sociedad’s ploy of playing a narrow five-man midfield (using two slightly wider players – David Zurutuza and Oyarzabal to mark Dani Alves and Sergi Roberto) prevented Barcelona from creating the extra man that so often characterises their play.
There’s a lot riding on this week. Real Madrid must also save their season (assuming that the league is still beyond them) by appealing to the old epic days of the Bernabeu ‘remontadas’ (comebacks), managing to rest half of the squad on Saturday for this coming purpose. Poor Eibar, the victims, are still not safe mathematically, and are beginning to experience a worrying re-run of last season’s collapse. They should be okay, but their form has dropped alarmingly. Atletico won comfortably enough, 3-1 at Espanyol, but will be without the rejuvenated Torres who was sent off in the first leg. But you just feel that the tide has turned slightly and few would be too shocked if they were to bundle Barcelona out of the competition.
Few teams can boast having such a hold on the mighty Barcelona but Real Sociedad have always given the Spanish giants trouble whenever they have visited the Basque country.
Barcelona have failed to win in their last seven visits to the Anoeta in all competitions, with their last victory coming way back in May 2007.
Since then, it has been a tale of five defeats and two draws.
From David Moyes side’s gritty 1-0 victory in January 2015 to Saturday night’s sluggish display in the 24-year-old stadium – Lionel Messi (two goals in seven visits) and co have not found it to be a happy hunting ground.