- Associated Press - Friday, February 10, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Asier Illarramendi, not long ago considered a flop at Real Madrid, has boyhood club Real Sociedad sitting near the top of the Spanish league.

Illarramendi’s unstoppable long-distance strike sealed Sociedad’s 2-1 win at Espanyol on Friday, a victory that lifted the Basque Country club past Atletico Madrid and into fourth place. The top four finishers in Spain earn a berth to next season’s Champions League.

In 2013, after a strong season by Illarramendi that saw Sociedad finish fourth, Real Madrid paid close to 40 million euros ($43 million) for the holding midfielder. He was supposed to be a solution for the future, but Illarramendi never settled in at the European powerhouse. Two years later he was sold back to Sociedad for less than half of what he cost.

A year and a half since his return, Illarramendi has only missed one league match this season, making him the most used outfield player by coach Eusebio Sacristan.

The 26-year-old Illarramendi is back to being the same quiet, yet confident player who shares both defensive and attacking tasks.

His goal on Friday in Barcelona was a perfect example of what he provides his team.

Illarramendi poached an errant pass by Espanyol defender David Lopez and didn’t hesitate to launch a powerful shot from well outside the area. His first goal of the season was a beauty: a dipping line-drive strike that left goalie Diego Lopez flatfooted as it landed in the corner of this goal.

“The truth is I don’t put much faith in my shot, but today it didn’t fail me,” Illarramendi said. “We are playing well, with a lot of confidence, but we have to keep this up because there is a long way to go.”

Sociedad forward Carlos Vela opened the scoring in the 26th after a deft control of Inigo Martinez’s long forward lob.

Espanyol forward Hernan Perez leveled for the hosts in the 35th when he eluded two defenders in the box before firing over goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.

Atletico can reclaim fourth place with a victory over Celta Vigo on Sunday.

The loss ended a run of three straight victories for Espanyol, which was left in eighth.

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