Football - PREVIEW-Next stop Europe for burgeoning Real Sociedad

* Fourth-placed Sociedad visit Espanyol

Reuters

* Barca, Real, Malaga distracted by Champions League quarters

France and Spain were bitter enemies in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday but a flourishing Franco-Spanish relationship in San Sebastian is helping Real Sociedad realise a long-forgotten European dream.

The Basque club travel to play Espanyol on Sunday (1800 GMT)looking to strengthen their grip on fourth place with the possibility of earning Champions League football for next season an unexpected new objective.

In French coach Philippe Montanier's second season at the helm, Sociedad have been the surprise-package of the league on the back of an 18-game run with only one defeat - a thrilling 4-3 reverse at Real Madrid in January.

"We are in a historical moment for the club," Sociedad defender Alberto de la Bella told a news conference earlier this week.

"It's a great opportunity. There are 10 games left to achieve something which we didn't have in mind at the start of the campaign. Everyone is very excited at the prospect.

"The team is confident. We haven't lost since January. Before, we used to go out timidly and lacking in belief, now we don't care which stadium we run out in."

Sociedad finished as La Liga runners up to Real Madrid in 2003 but since then have endured relegation, three seasons in the second division and administration.

Partly out of financial necessity, they have successfully developed a team built around a large number of youth academy players, and blended them with imports such as Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and Mexico striker Carlos Vela.

They ended Barcelona's record-breaking unbeaten start to the season with a 3-2 home win in January and were the first team to take anything from the Calderon with a 1-0 victory at third-placed Atletico Madrid three weeks ago.

Sociedad have 47 points and are 13 adrift of Atletico, though two ahead of fifth-placed Valencia, who visit Diego Simeone's side on Sunday (2000).

QUARTER-FINALS

Champions League quarter-finalists Malaga, who visit Rayo Vallecano on Saturday (1500) are sixth with 45 points, but are in danger of slipping out of top-four contention after a run of four games without a win.

Leaders Barcelona, with 74 points, are counting the cost of international duty after fullback Jordi Alba and forward Pedro returned from the Spanish national team with injuries.

Alba is out with a hamstring strain, Pedro with a calf problem, and playmaker Xavi has been nursing a hamstring injury ahead of their trip to relegation-threatened Celta Vigo on Saturday (1700).

Coach Tito Vilanova has finally returned to Barcelona after having cancer treatment in New York and is expected to be back at training from Friday.

Barca hold a 13-point advantage over second-placed Real Madrid, and will have one eye on next Tuesday's trip to play Paris St Germain in their Champions League quarter-final first leg.

Champions Real are at struggling Real Zaragoza on Saturday (1900) to take on a side without a win in 2013, and like Barca, will be shuffling their resources ahead of next Wednesday's visit of Galatasaray in their Champions League quarter-final.

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