A routine 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao last weekend meant Barcelona stretched their league unbeaten streak to 36 games, a mere two games away from matching the longest unbeaten run in La Liga history.
The Catalans haven’t tasted defeat since April against Malaga. After a supposedly poor summer, Barca have taken everyone by surprise, sitting a handsome 11 points clear of second-place Atletico Madrid and 15 clear of arch-rivals Real Madrid.
With ten games to go, the Blaugrana are on course to going the entire league season unbeaten.
Spain has had invincible sides before. Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid both won the league title without defeat in the 30s, however, the league was made up of just 10 teams back then and no one has managed the feat since Los Blancos in the 1931/32 season.
A couple of teams have come close, but none have ever managed to avoid defeat.
Perhaps the most infamous near-invincible side was Real Sociedad, who currently hold the longest unbeaten streak of 38 games.
Like their present-day counterparts, the Basques carried their form into the following season, coming painfully close to going invincible before their season crumbled in emphatic fashion.
The league was still smaller than it is today, unlike the 1930s however, the division was made up of 18 teams rather than just 10.
La Real’s life in the shadows
Up until the 1970s, Real Sociedad spent most of its existence in the shadow of their rivals, Athletic Bilbao.
By the end of the 1950s, Athletic had won 26 trophies, including 6 league titles, in comparison to their fellow Basques, who had just a single Copa Del Rey title in 1909 to their name.
At the end of the 1961/1962 season, the San Sebastian outfit were relegated for the first time in 18 years.
It seemed to be the final nail in Real Sociedad’s coffin, however, it turned out to be just the beginning of a new era for the club.
Real Sociedad’s golden era
In 1968, They won promotion in style, winning the Segunda title and continued to defy the odds, climbing the table on the back of a golden generation of youth talents.
The side was likely the best the club had ever produced and contained many current club legends.
Among the ranks were Real Sociedad’s record appearance maker Alberto Górriz and all-time top scorer, Jesus Satrustegui. Some other legendary names include, Luis Arconada, Inaxio Kortabarria, Jesus Zamora and Lopez Ufarte.
And so the run begins
The unbeaten streak began with four wins from their last six games in the 1978/79 season.
Alberto Omaetxea’s side were able to carry on their good form into the following season and finished the calendar year top of table.
Unlike the present Barcelona side, there was quite a tight title race between the Basques and defending champions, Real Madrid.
Real Sociedad managed just nine wins from their first 17 league fixtures, drawing the rest and were only top by goal difference.
Despite the draws, there were some truly impressive stats from their first half of the season.
They had lost just a single game in all competitions up until that point – a 3-0 loss to Inter Milan in Europe – and had managed some excellent wins including over Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Basques routed Los Blancos 4-0 at the Atocha and edged the latter in a 4-3 thriller.
Real Sociedad continued their charge to their first-ever La Liga title after the winter break. La Real opened the New Year with a draw but followed it up with another 4-0 win at home, this time against arch-nemesis Athletic Bilbao.
Close La Liga title race
The title race continued to be very tight with neither the Basque outift, nor Real Madrid going clear at the top by more than 1 point.
Coming into the final few weeks, Los Blancos had spent a mere four weeks at the summit of La Liga and had been top for just a week since January, yet they kept themselves in the conversation and their patience would be rewarded.
Real Sociedad came to the penultimate game of the season, away to Sevilla, still unbeaten and just two wins away from clinching a first-ever league title.
Their opponents had been quite average, spending nearly the entire season in mid-table.
Unbeaten streak ends
Hence it was a shock when the home side took the lead after 30 minutes and the league leaders went into half time 1-0 down. Thankfully, Real Madrid had been unable to take advantage so far, going down a goal themselves away to Las Palmas.
Omaetxea’s side returned for the second half and managed to get back level through Jesus Zamora goal. Sevilla were also reduced to nine men, further scuppering their chances.
As the game entered the dying minutes, Real Sociedad continued to look for the all-elusive winning goal.
With just seven minutes left to play, Sevilla striker, Bertoni, put the home side back in front and despite a two-man advantage, Real Sociedad couldn’t save their unbeaten streak and fell to their first league defeat of the campaign.
Pipped to the title at the end
It proved a very costly defeat. Madrid won their game at Palmas and snatched top spot with just a single game left to play.
Real Sociedad managed to win their final game against Atletico Madrid, but, it was too little too late. Los Blancos secured their third league title with a home victory against none other than Athletic Bilbao.
Although the new champions had lost three games over the season, they still managed to win three more matches than Real Sociedad.
Despite going unbeaten, it was the Basques’ inability to win consistently that lost them the league, they won 22 out of the 38 fixtures during their unbeaten run and drew 14 games over the course of the 1979/80 season.
Still in the history books
Although they lost the title in such painful circumstances, the 1979/80 season sits in an odd place in Real Sociedad folklore.
If you venture into the Real Sociedad history section on their website and look at the 1980-1990 decade, it is the season of focus for the whole of the 80s, with only a passing mention of the league title victories that followed.
Writing about then-manager Omaetxea following his death in 2005, one Madrid journalist claims “To mention him is to remember the three leagues, two with a title and another moral.”
For a club of La Real’s stature, it is understandable to see why the fans would be pleased with challenging for the title, even if they didn’t win it.
Success finally came
The following season, Real Sociedad finally won the league on the final day with a 2-2 draw away to Sporting Gijon proving enough to knock Madrid off their throne.
They had won the exact same number of games as the previous season and lost eight more. Omaetxea would lead his side to further glory, retaining the league and leading the Basques to a European Cup semi-final appearance.
Will Barcelona do what Real Sociedad couldn’t?
Though the title is all-but wrapped up for Ernesto Valverde’s men, an undefeated season is still far from reality as they travel to the grounds where Real Sociedad’s long unbeaten run came to an end this weekend.
Some tests still lie on the road with a trip to Sevilla representing a case of history repeating itself. After travelling to Andalusia, the Catalans must host Valencia, go to Celta and play out the final El Clasico of the season.
In a brilliant twist of faith for neutrals, Barcelona’s final challenge of the season is at home to Real Sociedad.
They will have by then passed La Real’s record and it is truly fitting that the Basques will have a chance to inflict the same hurt that they felt all those years ago.
Alternatively, they could also watch what could have been at the Nou Camp as Barca lift the title undefeated. As often the case in Spanish football, the story for some games write themselves.