Espanyol were slow to warm up at the RCDE stadium last night, going a goal down to a well organised Zorya Luhansk side before turning the gas on at half time and reaching boiling point in a scintillating final half hour.
Gallego evidently had a gameplan which involved rotating the players with respect to the loss against Sevilla at the weekend. Calero, as expected, made his full debut at centre back, coming in for Naldo. The midfield was unrecognisable, with Iturraspe in the holding positing and Darder and Granero ahead of him. Puado and Wu Lei lined up either side of Ferreyra in attack. Gallego will indeed have to make full use of his squad throughout this campaign, but it could be deemed risky to leave out players such as Marc Roca and Matías Vargas for such a decisive fixture.
Zorya began brightly, attacking mainly down the left wing and getting a couple of dangerous balls into the box early on. Perhaps they has seen how much joy Sevilla had using the same ploy on Sunday, but whatever the reason it looked like it would be another long 90 minutes for Javi López.
Espanyol were enjoying plenty of possession, but it was mainly restricted to passes among the back four, with Iturraspe providing the only midfield outlet and a lock of connection with the rest of the players. The Ukrainians were defending compactly and there was plenty of space for full backs Javi López and Dídac to get forward, however, the end product was consistently disappointing or non-existent. The exception to the rule came on 15 minutes when Dídac found Ferreyra free at the back post, but the Argentinian couldn’t get his header on target when he really should have done better.
Just shy of twenty minutes and Iturraspe’s evening took a turn for the worse. He was absolutely clobbered as he leapt to challenge for a 50/50 ball, and had to go off with a shoulder problem. The Basque had started tidily enough, but the fact he was replaced by Marc Roca may have been a blessing in disguise for the blanc-i-blaus. The 21 year old has a much more extensive range of passing, and the Zorya players had to ease the pressure a little, wary off a more direct ball out to the flanks.
The sucker punch came on 38 minutes. Zorya won the ball back on the half way line and broke quickly down the right, in a way the home side hadn’t been capable of. The ball was fizzed in to Kabaev, who first-touch backheel layoff was ideal for the onrushing Kochergin to smash low and hard into the corner from the edge of the box. It was a low-percentage play but it had come off perfectly. 0-1.
Espanyol struggle to react and the crowd were growing despondent as the opening period drew to a close. An apparent lack of ideas and repeatedly poor delivery into the box were giving them little to cheer about.
Gallego decided to make a change at the break, albeit not the one the one that many expected. It is early in his tenure but the coach seems to have the capacity to surprise with his alterations. Víctor Sánchez came on to replace Dídac at left back, and immediately began to plow his way up and down the flank like a steam train. Naturally right-footed, his tendency was always to cut inside, but he was combining well with Puado, Granero and Darder, and bringing then into the game more and more.
The fans were starting to react to the higher tempo, and when, on 51 minutes, the diminutive Wu Lei rose above everyone to crash a header off the bar from a corner, they were really roused. Espanyol had complete territorial advantage now, with the Zorya players struggling to resist being sucked towards La Curva.
Javi Puado was having a difficult match. He had looked positionally uncertain on the right in the first half, and, having moved to the left in the second period, was struggling to unbalance the defence. He repeatedly cut in onto his right foot, only to lay a simple pass backwards. With 58 minutes on the clock he finally received the ball high enough up the field to cut in and get a shot off. The defender read his intentions but only managed to partially block the effort. Ferreyra, ever alert inside the box, followed the shot in at the far post and was there to nod into an empty net. 1-1, game on.
Espanyol were in the ascendency but still looked predictable, and time was running out to gain a vital advantage. Enter Matías Vargas. Puado made way for the recent arrival from Argentina, and with this change the flow of the match became a one-way torrent.
The home side, too, attacked predominantly down the left, but Wu Lei and Javi López were starting to find gaps in behind on the opposite flank. On one such occasion the Chinese striker’s attempted cross was blocked by an outstretched Ukranian arm: penalty. Granero took responsibility from the spot, but his tame effort was saved by Shevchenko in goal. The young keeper had already been winding up the crowd by taking time over his goal kicks, and decided to celebrate animatedly in front of them, with predictable results.
Going into the last 15 minutes, Zorya had the result they wanted, but their satisfaction wasn’t to last long. With the clock ticking towards 80 minutes, a typical Espanyol move down the left wing saw the ball alid back to Darder. The number 10 lifted his head and played Javi López in on the right. There was no hesitation from the captain as he rifled into the roof of the net. The right back has come in for a lot of stick in the last couple of weeks, and you could see an outpouring of emotion in his celebration. 2-1.
The place was rocking now and Zorya just wanted to go home. They tried to slow things down, but gaps were appearing and, just two minutes later, Wu Lei broke away once more. It looked as if he would have to lay the ball outside, but he held his nerve and played a lovely through ball to Vargas on the left. El Monito steadied himself, set his sights on the top corner, and rifled it in. What a goal, 3-1.
There were still 10 minutes left and there could have been more. Wu Lei saw a header tipped brilliantly onto the post, but in the end Zorya held out to give themselves half a chance in the second leg. This is only half the job done, but the second half performance was a great relief and encouragement all the same.
Fans who were cursing Gallego at half time: 13,686
Legends called Matías Vargas: 1
Thumbs up: Vargas, Calero, Víctor Sánchez, Wu Lei.
*Shakes head*: Dídac