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Real Sociedad return a weight off Illarra's shoulders

The pressure proved too much on the Basque midfielder during his two-year stint at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

When Asier Illarramendi was presented as a Real Madrid player in the summer of 2013 he brought a group of friends to the ceremony at the Santiago Bernabeu, where Florentino Perez handed him the No.24 shirt after giving the green light to the £28.5 million signing from Real Sociedad.

Where players usually have their promotional pictures alongside the Madrid president and members of their family, Illarramendi brought his best friends from Mutriku, in the Basque country, for support. In hindsight, it was a telling sign of what was to come from what was to ultimately be a disappointing two-year spell with the ten-time European champions.

Illarramendi is a player who missed his home and missed his friends. While players often up sticks and move to the other side of Europe to play football, Illarramendi found it uncomfortable moving to the capital city of his own country. The size of the club and the different way of life ultimately proved too much for a player who had promised so much.

His footballing qualities are now in the balance after failing to fulfil the job of replacing Xabi Alonso at the Bernabeu but it was the psychological battle he lost when he pulled on the famous white shirt. He returned to San Sebastian on Wednesday for less than half of the fee Madrid paid for him in 2013. It could prove to be a good bit of business for the Anoeta club if Illaramendi regains the form that allowed him to stand out with La Real in the first place.

Illarramendi could not have arrived at Madrid in much better form. He was the leader at Real Sociedad and in what was to be his final year at the club he played a pivotal role in helping the club finish fourth in La Liga and reach the Champions League for the first time in a decade. For his efforts he received the Breakthrough Player and Best Midfielder awards at the LFP Awards night.

If his domestic form was not enough, those at Madrid who were watching the young talent shine were won over by his star showing at the UEFA European U21 Championships. In the weeks prior to his move to the Bernabeu, Illarramendi led ‘La Rojita', as the young Spain squad are affectionately known to victory in Isreal.

It was fair to say his arrival was met with plenty of excitement and intrigue in the capital. Madrid had spent a lot of money on the Basque midfielder but he came alongside players such as Isco and Dani Carvajal as Perez looked to mirror what was happening over at Barcelona and make a side packed full of Spanish players for the future.

It also helped that Illarramendi's profile matched that of Alonso, whose legs were tiring on the downward slope of his career. The Spain international still had plenty in the tank but Illarramendi was seen as his natural successor. Not only did he play a similar way but he was from the Basque country and he played for Real Sociedad. Everything seemed to fit into place.

After his friend-led presentation at the Bernabeu and his early days training alongside some of the best players on the planet, it seemed all was not well, however. Reports suggest Illarramendi felt the pressure of playing for Madrid from the off, feeling out of place and even being sick at the club's training base due to the pressure. It had all piled up - his own trajectory, the pressure of playing for Madrid and the pressure of succeeding arguably the best holding midfielder in the world. Illarramendi's world was cracking around him.

When he got the chance to shine on the pitch that pressure continued to show. He looked comfortable against the poorer teams, those who didn't attack at the Bernabeu and arrived looking for damage limitation, but he struggled somewhat in the bigger matches. One such match was away at Dortmund in the Champions League when one his errors allowed the hosts to score. Madrid narrowly avoided a stunning comeback defeat but that error stuck - even though Pepe committed a similarly costly mistake.

Carlo Ancelotti, in charge at the time, did not forget and he lost faith and trust in the Spaniard. While Sami Khedira had lost most of the season through injury, the German got the nod to play in the Champions League final in 2014 against Atletico Madrid despite not being fully match fit. Illarramendi had been in-line to replace the suspended Alonso, as fate had seemingly set, but he ended up missing out and his future was on the line.

Some could have put his first season errors down to youth and inexperience but that is rarely taken into account at a club such as Madrid. The midfielder seemed destined for an exit last season but stuck around and rejected a move to Athletic Bilbao in the winter transfer window. It was no surprise to see him leave the Bernabeu this summer and it was no surprise to opt for his one true love in La Real instead of a move to the Premier League, where Arsenal and Liverpool had been linked.

Illarramendi's time in the Spanish capital was ultimately a failure but more familiar surroundings of Anoeta should slowly bring the midfield man back to life. Whether he can return to his former glories and reach his full potential remains to be seen.

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