Manchester United could not have received many tougher Europa League last-32 assignments than that of Real Sociedad.
But La Real are quietly enjoying another impressive season, which at one stage in late November saw them dreaming of a first La Liga title since 1982 after they moved to the top of the table.
Their form has faltered slightly since then but they still sit in fifth place and are well in the race for Champions League qualification.
And they may well fancy their chances of doing so by winning a first ever Europa League trophy, with United the first hurdle they must overcome in the knockout stages.
Speaking exclusively to Mirror Football via Zoom while his dogs Paco and Lola scamper around behind him, one of La Real’s stand-out performers, Spanish attacking midfielder Portu, explains what the team have been getting right.
“We started the season amazingly and had some brilliant results,” he says. “But I think playing every three days has taken its toll.
“The results are still good but of course it is difficult to maintain the same level week in week out at the moment.
“La Real is a club for the people. We don’t spend huge amounts of money on transfers and for that reason have always produced great young players – I think we have the youngest team in La Liga right now.
“But we also have a number of experienced veterans, and that mix seems to be working.”
One of those wizened old pros who certainly needs little introduction to English supporters is David Silva.
The Manchester City legend proved to be United’s nemesis for many a year before his return to Spain in the summer.
And Portu – who has scored six goals and created three assists so far this season – certainly seems to be relishing the experience of playing alongside ‘El Mago’.
“All you can do is learn from him,” he admits in an admiring, hushed tone.
“He’s a spectacular footballer and person. Technically he is one of the best players I have seen and he’s a genius both with the ball at his feet and tactically. In the dressing room when he talks, you listen.
“He is used to playing against United and at Old Trafford in the derby and he is determined to go back there and win.”
Another familiar face likely to be lining up on Thursday is Adnan Januzaj, with the former United winger going up against his former club.
“Adnan is very excited about the game and was really happy with the draw when it was made,” Portu continues. “Every player likes facing their old teams.
“He told us everything about how special Manchester United is and still has a lot of affection towards the club.
“We all know what a huge club it is all around the world and it is a great challenge for us to try to beat them.”
Much of La Real’s recent success is down to head coach Imanol Alguacil, who worked at the club in various roles before taking charge of the first-team in 2018.
He may not be particularly well-known outside of Spain, but Portu has clearly been hugely impressed by the Basque boss and his methods.
“He is passionate about football and only ever thinks about what’s best for the team and about the next opponent,” he adds.
“He’s the first to arrive at training and the last to leave and has very clear ideas all the time. His football is focused on attacking and pressing and you cannot relax for a moment in training.”
So has Alguacil got a special plan in mind to deal with the threat of Bruno Fernandes and co?
“We know United have superb players with a lot of quality. Fernandes is having another great season and seems to be making all the difference.
“But we focus more on a team as a whole than individual players and we’re more interested on how we are going to cause them problems rather than the other way around.”
There is some controversy surrounding the tie, with La Real losing their ‘home’ advantage due to Covid and Thursday’s game having to be played in Turin.
United, however, will still be allowed to play at Old Trafford in the second leg in a few weeks time.
“The truth is that you don’t notice it as much with the lack of fans,” Portu says on the matter.
“It perhaps would have been fairer to have the second leg in a neutral ground, but we cannot change it and we will go to Old Trafford and give it all we’ve got like always.”
So would he ever fancy a switch to the Premier League?
“I am very happy here for now and feel very comfortable, but would never close the door on the chance to play another type of football in another league,” he replies.
“I certainly wouldn’t mind experiencing another culture and doing something completely different.”
Before the end of the interview, Portu has a final message for United ahead of the first leg in Turin.
“I hope that after Thursday’s game we know each other a bit better… and that in a few weeks we are better known around Europe for eliminating Manchester United.”
United fans – you have been warned.