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La Liga Jornada 13 Review: Espanyol Might Actually Be For Real

Under trainer Mauricio Pochettino, Espanyol has gone through one of these hot streaks in every season he has managed the club.  After the club fired José Manuel Esnal “Mané” in the middle of the 2008-09 season, they hired Mauricio Pochettino to get out of the relegation zone.  As late as Jornada 30 in that season, Espanyol propped everyone at the foot of the table, ominously looking at the Segunda División for the first time since 1994, but the Catalans won eight of their last ten matches to finish in a comfortable tenth.

Last season, Espanyol only lost two of their first eight matches and never felt the fight for relegation because of their decent start as they finished a mediocre eleventh place, eight points above the drop zone.

It would be easy to write off Espanyol as merely an early season surprise that will return to its place in mid to lower table as their campaign wears on into the winter months.  They have achieved a fourth-place position based on their stellar six-for-six home record with only Real Madrid able to keep up with such solidity at home, but away from the Cornellà-El Prat, los periquitos have been less than ordinary, racking up a paltry four points out of eighteen heading into the Vicente Calderón on Saturday night against Atlético Madrid.

For many teams that find themselves in the top four of a league, they have a defined identity that characterizes why they are playing well.  Taking the top four currently in La Liga, Barcelona’s identity is a possession team that continually prods the defense until they see a tiny opening, when their talented players exploit such weaknesses to the maximum.  Real Madrid’s identity directly comes from their trainer José Mourinho, who emphasizes defensive reliability, then lets his players flourish in the opponent’s final third.  Villarreal’s identity is based on their slick, short passing game and their ability to thrive through the middle of the pitch despite playing narrower than most teams.

What is Espanyol’s identity?

They are not particularly physical, like Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao.  They are not overtly defensive, like Deportivo La Coruña or Mallorca.  They do not play with a flair like Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Villarreal.  They are not schizophrenic or wildly inconsistent like Atlético Madrid, Málaga, or Sevilla.  They do not have an outspoken, demonstrative manager that inspires them like Manolo Preciado for Sporting Gijón or Unai Emery for Valencia.

What is Espanyol’s identity?

They are that anonymous team that no one really notices, but when people look at the results, they scratch their heads and ask from where did they come?

They are the master of the close matches, as five of their seven victories were won by a single goal, including four 1-0 victories.  When they lose, they tend to get blown out with three of their four losses coming at a three-goal margin or higher.

If they were located in another city in Spain, Espanyol would have more press about their impressive start, but they are situated in the city of Barcelona, where their city rivals FC Barcelona completely engulf El Mundo Deportivo and Sport, the two main sports daily newspapers in Barcelona, and quite frankly, Espanyol does not mind that they are in the shadows of their more famous neighbor.  They do not carry an inferior complex like their opponents on Saturday night, Atlético Madrid, have with their local rivals Real Madrid.

The 2-3 victory for Espanyol over Atlético Madrid on Saturday felt like that other matchup between the other two teams from their respective cities, and El Clásico on Monday night will find it hard to live up to this undercard at the Vicente Calderón.

Quique Sánchez Flores, for the first time all season, could name the same starting eleven as the previous round with Sergio Agüero and José Antonio Reyes continuing their good form while Diego Forlán has recently come out of the doldrums with three goals in his last two matches against Osasuna and Real Sociedad.

Mauricio Pochettino also had the luxury of naming consecutive starting elevens, and his cradle of young footballers have matured at a high rate and now lead a talented group that could see Espanyol compete for European places on a regular basis.  Cantera products Dídac Vilà, Jordi Amat, Javi Márquez, etc. now feature regularly in Pochettino’s lineup, and with Boca Juniors import Juan Forlín, they had the responsibility of containing Atlético’s rampant attack.

After a frantic opening five minutes, where turnovers in the midfield led to scoring opportunities for Forlán and Pablo Osvaldo, the match settled down to a muddle in the midfield until the 20th minute, when referee José Antonio Teixiera Vitienes whistled and pointed to the penalty spot in favor of Espanyol.  José Callejón’s free kick hit José Antonio Reyes in the wall that was inside the penalty area, but in trying to protect himself from receiving a beaning from the free kick, he lifted his arms to shield his face, and the ball hit his arms.  Teixiera Vitienes judged that he made himself bigger by raising his arms and thus the penalty had to be called.  Luís García blasted the penalty kick down the middle, hitting the underside of the crossbar, and scoring Espanyol’s second away goal of the season.

Comfortably holding that one-goal advantage despite Atlético slightly controlling both the possession and the flow of the match, Espanyol looked poised to go into halftime with the 0-1 lead, but in the final ten minutes of the first half, Atlético ramped up the pressure ten-fold, camping inside Carlos Kameni’s penalty area, and in the final action of the half, Atlético equalized despite the heroics of Kameni.

?Kameni did the best he could, first stopping Tiago’ header from Simão’s corner from six yards out and then blocking Diego Godín’s follow-up from point-blank range, but he could not stop Tiago’s second effort from just in front of the goal line as his defenders complained more about an offside call than trying to clear Kameni’s lines.

If a person went to Ladbrokes, Bwin, or any other betting place at halftime, the odds of Atlético Madrid winning the match would likely have been at even money or below.  In Espanyol’s lone away win against Mallorca, they took the lead with another Luís García penalty and never conceded the lead.  With such a devastating blow in the final seconds of the first half, few would have bet their savings on Espanyol to recover and win the match.

Espanyol struck again nine minutes into the second half due to a goalkeeping gaffe by the young starlet David de Gea, as a usually routine save on Pablo Osvaldo’s shot was bumbled away by de Gea to the right far post, where Joan Verdú ghosted in and cleaned up the mess.  Unlike after Espanyol’s first goal, where the lead seemed secure, the 1-2 scoreline looked like it would not hold up as Atlético pressed on to equalize again, and a classic Forlán – Agüero hookup in the 66th minute made the game all square for the second time.

Surely, Atlético would now deliver the final blow on an Espanyol club that fought well but would ultimately come up short on the road yet again.  After los rojiblancos blew three more scoring chances following their second equalizer, Pablo Osvaldo sealed the win for Espanyol with an outstanding volley that took all the technical skill he could muster.  Luís García’s cross from the right wing was slightly behind Osvaldo, and he knew that controlling the ball would have killed any chance of scoring, so he struck the ball sweetly with the laces of his boots to the upper right corner of the goal, and de Gea dove in vain as Espanyol showed for the first time this season the persistence and resiliency that comes with winning tough away matches.

Emotions and passions will run high in El Clásico on Monday night, but they will not likely spill over like the fracas that occurred at the end of the Atlético Madrid – Espanyol match, when Quique Sánchez Flores went ballistic on Luís García after Diego Godín clattered Javi López on the sideline.  Sánchez Flores claimed that García laughed at him and suggested to López to stay down to waste more time.  Sánchez Flores attempted to lift López off the ground, and the Espanyol players took exception, with Mauricio Pochettino coming into the scene to diffuse the situation and keep Sánchez Flores back from doing more harm than he had already done.

2-3 fulltime, and Quique Sánchez Flores continued his tirade at Luís García, and both his coaching staff and Espanyol goalkeeper Carlos Kameni had to restrain him from getting near García.

The little episode at the end of the match should not cloud the extraordinary performance of Espanyol, who dispelled some of the insinuations that they could not win away from home against the upper echelon clubs in Spain.  Will Espanyol finish in the top four and qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in its history?  Likely not, but unlike some of the talented Espanyol teams of the past decade that fell short of expectations, this team has a core of young stars that do not fear success.

While Raúl Tamudo will always be a club legend for Espanyol, the drama that surrounded him in the past two years, including his manager and former teammate Mauricio Pochettino phasing him out of the starting eleven as well as contract disputes with the board, needed to dissipate so that these young players could move on, and Pablo Osvaldo can now play with a freedom, knowing that Tamudo is not in his rear view mirror anymore.

With Pochettino’s young energy and the team’s young blood coming through the Espanyol academy into the first team, the future of Barcelona’s second club looks bright.  El derbi Barceloní between Espanyol and FC Barcelona will occur in Jornada 16, and while this match is usually played for pride rather than table positioning because Espanyol normally occupies the lower half of the table, the 153rd edition of the derby might be the most significant derby in decades.

Monday’s El Clásico can only hope to live up to this match between a Madrid and a Barcelona team.

Fueras de Juego

– The knives were out for Míchel González after Getafe went through another lifeless half against Sevilla, but somehow, with the help of a complacent Sevilla, Míchel’s team overturned the 1-0 deficit with three goals in the second half, including a Pedro Ríos shot that could have easily ripped through the back of the net because of it exhilarating velocity.  Sevilla has become the Atlético Madrid of this season, notching impressive wins over Valencia and Atlético Madrid while inexplicably losing to Hércules and Sporting Gijón by multiple-goal margins.

– While the neutrals will want a winner in El Clásico on Monday night, the one team that wants the match to end in a draw is Villarreal.  They took care of Real Zaragoza at La Romareda 0-3, and they currently stand four points behind Barcelona and five points behind Real Madrid.  The Yellow Submarine does not want either team to go too far beyond them, with the dying hope that they still have a chance to finish inside the top two.

– Whether Roberto Soldado meant to or not, his first goal in Valencia’s 2-1 win over Almería deserves the golazo of the week with an incredible bit of luck/skill to set up his shot at goal.  Bruno Saltor’s cross from the right wing came just a shade short for Soldado to head it toward another teammate, so Soldado backheaded it to himself to control the ball, then he juked a couple of Almería defenders and shot it past Diego Alves for the 1-0 lead.  If Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Lionel Messi performed such a skill, no one would question that they did it deliberately to control the ball, but gangly and awkward Roberto Soldado could not have possibly done that on purpose, or did he?

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