Hurray for long balls and Álvarez’s bad day

Víctor and Esteban having a great time

Being a dominant team that can control matches and manipulate their opponents at will is all very well, but everyone knows the most satisfying form of victory in football is the suckerpunch. Preferably against a backdrop of negativity and at a ground which holds little more than memories of defeat. Yesterday, then, was a great day for Espanyol. With a quarter of an hour left at the Ipurua against Eibar, the goals for column in the La Liga table was still unblemished, and joviality on the journey back to Barcelona would be notable only by its absence. Three short minutes later, the game was turned on its head, and pericos will hope their side’s change in fortune proves to be permanent over the coming weeks.

Gallego opted for the expected 4-4-2 formation from the start: Diego López; Javi López, Naldo, Calero, Dídac; Víctor Sánchez, Roca, Melendo, Darder, Calleri, Ferreyra. Javi López returned to captain the side after Sébastien Corchia was ruled out with a knee injury on Friday. The Frenchman has had more than his fair share of fitness issues over the past couple of seasons, and hopefully tests this week will not show up anything too serious. Wu Lei and Matías Vargas were attacking options from the bench, after their exploits during the recent international break

The two teams were well matched, with Eibar also lining up in their familiar 4-4-2. The Basque side like to attack down the flanks, with full-backs Tejero and Cote getting forward to support Orellana and Inui. In Sergi Enrich and Charles they have two traditional centre-forwards with proven goalscoring records in La Liga. Mendilibar’s side made their intentions clear in the 6th minute, Inui fizzing a cross into a dangerous zone from the left. Diego López did well to beat Enrich to the ball, and replays showed that Dídac’s block was all that prevented Orellana from putting the rebound into the net from a narrow angle. The home side did not have things all their own way though, and Calleri almost opened the scoring when he pounced on a moment of hesitation between Arbilla and Dmitrovic with 15 minutes on the clock. The Argentinian striker looked hungry throughout the 90 minutes, although he wouldn’t have a better chance to open his Espanyol account as he did here. 

Espanyol fans have witnessed what could politely be described as hesitant defending from their side so far this term, and they were left holding their breath every time Eibar whipped a ball into the box. Diop should have done better with his delivery on 17 minutes, and Calleri was flagged narrowly offside as Espanyol broke upfield. There was a tactical shift in evidence here: Gallego, perhaps conditioned by the absence of Corchia and Pedrosa, had instructed his full-backs to maintain a much deeper position than they had done in defeat against Sevilla and Granada. Rather than working the ball wide, Espanyol were attempting to play through balls from deeper positions, with Dídac and Víctor Sánchez having some success in finding the runs of the Argentinian duo up front. Eibar like to keep a high line and apply pressure high up the pitch, so can be vulnerable to such a ploy. Diego López was happy to play long balls upfield, thankfully forgoing the torturous attempts at tiki-taka on the edge of the six-yard box that have been endured so far this season.

Calleri wasted a great opportunity on the counter-attack with Ferreyra and Darder waiting in the middle, and Inui nutmegged Javi López on a rare occasion that he got in behind his man, as the sides continued to spar. With half an hour played, Espanyol could consider themselves to have had the better of the early exchanges. The tempo of the match faltered, however, as both sides found it tough to break down a resolute opponent. Eibar started to gain the upper hand in the closing minutes of the first half, with Enrich and then Edu almost getting a clear sight of goal, which meant that the half time whistle was warmly welcomed. 

Maybe Eibar had an extra sugar in their half-time cup of tea, as they seemed the slightly more energised of the sides as the match restarted. Calero did well to cut out a cross from Inui as he found himself isolated against Charles in the centre, and the Brazilian was caught offside as Espanyol were reminded of why sitting deep was advisable. The attack was still blunt, with Darder trickling a couple of speculative efforts in the vague direction of the goal, and Calleri demonstrating the subtle touch of an elephant as Melendo looked for a one-two inside the box. 

No sooner had the ball boy latched on to Calleri’s attempt at a return pass than Enrich had drawn a foul from Calero from the resultant goal kick. These kinds of opportunities to deliver into the box are Eibar’s bread and butter, and the instrumental Orellana’s eyes lit up here. Espanyol’s failure to protect the front post meant that they were caught with their proverbial pants down, and Ramis expertly guided a flicked header back across Diego López and into the far corner, 1-0. It was a barely deserved lead, but a lead nonetheless, and the Twitter warriors took to their keyboards to demand Gallego’s immediate execution. You can’t help but get the feeling it was the moment they had been waiting for. 

At the risk of slipping into the realm of football-narrative cliche, the next ten minutes would be crucial. Not to mention the next goal! 

Marc Roca seemed to be swimming in treacle for much of this encounter, and when he was booked for a late challenge on Orellana, his number was up. Vargas was called to get changed, and he was fortunate to make it onto the field with a deficit of a single goal. Arbilla will consider himself unlucky to be punished for his aerial challenge from the free kick, which meant that Enrich’s goal from the second ball was ruled out. Orellana and Tejero were threatening to run riot down the right wing but, by hook or by crook, Espanyol did weather the storm, and, for Eibar fans, the next few minutes were a series of unfortunate events.

Edu’s yellow card prompted Mendilibar to replace him with Escalante, with Pedrosa taking Melendo’s place at the same moment. (A couple of notes here: 1. Roca and Melendo are two of Espanyol’s most valued and popular players, but they were ineffectual here and Gallego deserves some credit for addressing the issue. 2. Pedrosa is the most explosive player in this squad and his introduction should have given pericos immediate encouragement.)  Two minutes later, captain Iván Ramis went down injured and was replaced in central defence by Sergio Álvarez. Álvarez is probably better known as a midfielder, and was thrown in at the deep end here. He had hardly taken up his position when it happened. 

Vargas, who had moved over to the inside-right position, needed just two touches to control and then slice a delicious ball off the outside of his boot and over the defence. It was a wonderfully inventive pass to pick out Ferreyra, who held off the hapless Álvarez before finishing left-footed. 1-1. The jinx was broken, but so too was Ferreyra, who immediately went down holding his hamstring. The way he pounded the ground was certainly in frustration rather than celebration, and we can only hope that his stay in the increasingly congested Espanyol treatment room is brief. 

Eibar didn’t know what had hit them, and looked around searchingly as Granero was rushed on to make up the numbers. As Espanyol reorganised, the home side tried to regain the momentum. A minute after the restart, Álvarez looked to play out from the back, but didn’t count on the alertness and searing pace of Pedrosa. His pass towards Tejero was sloppy, and Pedrosa was on his bike. Two touches took him forward twenty yards and clean through on the left, with Álvarez trailing in his wake. It is unclear whether Granero was told to go on and take up Ferreyra’s poacher’s role, but he certainly looked at home as he stroked into the open goal from two yards out. A scarcely credible 1-2. 

EFB barely saw the last ten minutes from between our fingers, but we surmised that a shellshocked Eibar found it difficult to react, even if the referee did encourage them by sending Naldo off for a soft second yellow in added time. He will now miss the game against Real Sociedad at RCDE stadium next week, meaning Gallego will have to shuffle the pack once more. Before that, a home tie against Ferencváros on Thursday represents a good opportunity to get the Europa League group stages off to a flying start. We’ll look forward to those matches in due course, but tickets are available now

Minutes of madness: 3

Goals scored this season: 2!

Thumbs up: Dídac, Víctor Sánchez, Ferreyra, Vargas, Pedrosa.

*Shakes head*: Roca, Melendo, Darder. 

Highlights of Eibar 1-2 Espanyol
La Liga table after round 4

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