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David Moyes' Real Sociedad are moving in the right direction

Which club defeated Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in the same season with three different coaches?

The answer, of course, is Real Sociedad in 2014-15.

It's a cool stat. And of those three coaches -- Jagoba Arrasate and Asier Santana are the other two -- only the current incumbent David Moyes has had the opportunity to do the double over Spain's ancient regime.

The first chance went at the Bernabeu in January when, after taking the lead, La Real were thumped 4-1 by the 'other' Real.

The second opportunity comes on Tuesday when Moyes' men visit Atletico (the third is on May 10 at the Camp Nou).

Winning at the Calderon against Spain's reigning champions and the Champions League quarterfinalists would be, arguably, the greatest result of the Scot's career.

The odds don't favour him, though.

Despite the Basques registering a win and two draws from their last five trips to the Spanish capital's "second" stadium, the more natural thing would be for La Real to lose this one.

Man for man, Atleti have powerful advantages. They were able to invest around €100m gross over the last two transfer markets to reboot a team which had just won La Liga and pinched La Real's best player, Antoine Griezmann last summer. They have also beaten Real Madrid four times this season.

In contrast, La Real do not have significantly deep playing resources and two players who have bought in fully to Moyes' methods, his principal central defenders Jon Ansotegi and Inigo Martinez, are both suspended for this match.

That's a very significant hurdle and far more of a fundamental loss than Atletico manager Diego Simeone leaving out Mario Mandzukic with what, we are told, is an injury.

With the deck already stacked against them, losing their centre-halves is a very specific setback for the Basque team.

Not only do Atleti score a very high number of headed goals, not only do their wide players place searching, first-time crosses into danger areas time and again, it's also the case that los Rojiblancos score a disproportionate number of their goals via well-planned, crisply-executed set-plays.

David Moyes' Real Sociedad have lost just one of their last eight league games.

Fortunately for Moyes he can call on Mikel Gonzalez, who started at centre-half in each of La Real's last two wins over Atleti, given that he has now returned from a series of injuries.

Gonzalez says of Moyes, who was appointed in November: "It took us a while to catch hold of what the manager wanted and while what he was asking of us, defensively, wasn't from another planet he had a different point of view, different background and it took work for us to get a grip of what he required. But that's happened and we look far more stable now, we are on a good dynamic".

In previewing this game Moyes himself said: "The weekend draw at Malaga was the most competitive performance away from home since I joined.

"We are improving, generally, but we have to begin to show that away from home too by being harder to play against when we are in the rival's stadium. A win and a draw away from home recently isn't sufficient, I want us to be consistently competitive and hard to play against when we are on the road."

You don't get "double-speak" from Moyes. If he expresses himself this way you can take it that it's a version of what he's telling his players over and over again: "Don't take 'complexes' on the road ... Play to win when we are away just as much as when we are at the Anoeta ... Add aggression and confidence to your game."

However it's also fair to read between the lines.

Moyes knows that his team lack, for example, a flow of "killer" goals which either punish the opposition for complacency or lack of form, or goals which can capitalize on spells of play when the Txuri-urdin -- "blue and whites" in Basque -- find their mojo and dominate.

Thus while it's not outlandish to think about La Real as a potentially stubborn and threatening visitor to the Calderon, or to think that stranger things have happened than them taking a point on Tuesday, you'd say that this is a really stringent test for a team still finding its feet.

It's worth recognizing and applauding some of the significant improvements that the former Everton and Manchester United manager has authored since he took over almost five months ago.

Moyes can already be credited with some fundamental, valuable, tangible achievements irrespective of whether his understrength team now completes the double over Spain's champions.

Firstly, it will have been forgotten, outside the increasingly frustrated and angry Real Sociedad fans that Moyes inherited a team which, under Arrasate, had won just four out of 20 consecutive La Liga matches spanning the end of last season and the beginning of this.

That's stone-cold relegation form.

Moyes inherited a team which was palpably soft mentally, physically and in terms of stamina.

Real Sociedad's inability to defend intensely late in matches has cost them at least 12 points this season, with goals conceded to Espanyol, Getafe and Levante in the 90th minute, Cordoba in the 87th, Celta in the 85th and Rayo in the 81st.

Not only has Moyes instructed the team on how he wants them to press effectively, how he wants them to be positioned when they lose the ball and when he does and doesn't want a high defensive line, he's made them mentally and physically fitter.

That has come about partly through a series of double training sessions and partly through squeezing much, much more out of every single one of said sessions.

Daily work, now, has become demanding and intense and not something to be completed safe in the knowledge that the coach favours you (or, conversely, that you won't be getting in the team). Competition for places is fierce and it's based on performance, not favoritism.

The result? In the last two months La Real have scored 90th minute goals to assure wins against Sevilla and Cordoba while also seeing out 1-0 wins against Espanyol and Getafe without last minute disasters.

In six of their last seven matches they've scored the last goal, culminating in Ruben Pardo's superb drive to take a point at Malaga last weekend.

And Pardo is the gateway to appreciating Moyes' attitude to backing players of quality, technique and application.

Still only 22, prior to Saturday's rescue job as a substitute, Pardo had been a starter in each of his previous nine Liga appearances. A relatively small, slender footballer, he tended to be kept on the bench by bigger, stronger team-mates but Moyes has voted for technique and intelligence, control and use of the ball.

At right-back, Yuri Berchiche previously had only one Primera Division appearance -- aged 19 back in 2009 -- but, in his first season with La Real, Moyes has taught him and trusted him with 18 starts.

At left-back, 22 year old Joseba Zaldua has never had so many starts in his career -- 16 so far.

Argentinian keeper Geronimo Rulli, also only 22, has been trusted and done well enough not only to help the Txuri-urdin become much harder to beat but he's also been noticed and called up by his national squad. That's no mean feat given his age and that this is his first season in Europe.

And Sergio Canales? A diamond of a footballer, not only badly hit by injuries but, increasingly, unsure of himself and his abilities, he has already played more games -- 28 -- in 2014-15 than in any previous season and needs just two more goals to set a new mark in that category. He's still only 24.

It's also worth recalling that with not only his reputation but the club's status at stake, Moyes chose not to invest precious funds in the winter market. He fished around for one or two well-chosen loan deals but strategically opted to trust his coaching ability, the hidden talents in his squad and to retain funds for better, more fruitful buying this summer. Value.

Without wishing to be harshly critical there's no question that Moyes has noticed sharp differences in how a club isolated in the Basque country and which has had recent experience of heavy debt and relegation has evolved, compared to, say, Everton.

He's brought methods, ideas, standards and strategic organization that are not only the product of his ability and achievements but which reflect on the chasm in professionalism which, sadly, exists between the English Premier League and Spain's Primera Division.

One small example is that San Sebastian is, geographically, extremely far away from the majority of opponents La Real will face in league or cup matches and the city's airport closes at night far earlier than Moyes has been used to at his previous clubs.

Elite clubs and elite managers calibrate very carefully matters such as the rest their players get and how debilitating constant travel can be on their squad, mentally just as much as physically.

This scenario often means that, thanks to night-time kickoffs, La Real will only return home the morning after a match rather than the same night which would, in turn, allow them to be at the training ground at 10 or 11 a.m. the next day.

It's not the end of the world but not great, either. If there are two away games in a week it can be disruptive and gnaw away at the amount of time spent on their Zubieta training ground. It can eat into a coach's ability to communicate and correct after a draw or a defeat.

A Jan. 4 victory vs. Barcelona was arguably the highlight of Moyes' time in San Sebastian so far.

In early January, just after beating Barcelona, La Real were away consecutively to Villarreal in the Copa del Rey and Granada in the league and their new manager had been slightly taken aback by how different it was to travel around Spain.

I suggested to him that he might like to copy some clubs and stage a training camp near Villarreal so that they could play their cup tie and then stay in eastern Spain, before heading down to Andalusia rather than wasting time returning home.

Moyes had already registered that idea but was dismayed to find that nobody in the club's technical/administrative department had pre-planned that concept and there were no established procedures to get the best out of such a -- not so rare! -- situation.

Almost three months later, having played Malaga on Saturday, Real Sociedad stayed on and trained in Marbella and then flew to Madrid for the Atletico game, rather than making a trip of some 1500km from Malaga-San Sebastian-Madrid. Shrewd.

It is progress by small steps, just as has been Moyes' Spanish language learning. Tutorials twice a week; phrases used here and there in interviews and, each night, an app on his phone testing him on vocabulary.

It is decent, if not accelerated, progress.

Whether or not they complete the double over the champions on Tuesday, La Real are in the right hands and the improvements they have made are tangible.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.


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