The long wait was finally over last night as Espanyol returned to European competition proper for the first time since 06/07, and played the first ever European game at the RCDE stadium. The level of expectation was in stark contrast with the sluggish start made by the blanc-i-blau, who literally made life difficult for themselves when captain Javi López scored an own goal inside the opening ten minutes. The now customary second-half siege was enough for a point on this occasion, with Matías Vargas getting the ball over the line by sheer force of will on the hour mark. There were chances aplenty to get the three points, but, in the end, it proved difficult to maintain the tempo, and there can be no hiding the fact that this is not the result that anyone wanted.
If there is one thing you can be sure of with Gallego, it’s that you can’t be sure how he will set his team out. To be fair, the demands of balancing domestic competition in La Liga with continental football are probably foremost in his mind, and he could expect some stick if he ran the same 11 players into the ground every three or four days. Having said that, for our money, the game last night should have taken precedence over Sunday’s fixture at home to Real Sociedad. There is plenty of time to recover in the league, whereas a six-match group stage in the Europa League could prove to be unforgiving. There are question marks, then, over the decisions to retain Dídac in place of Pedrosa, and leave Calleri, the only fit centre-forward in the senior squad, on the bench.
The energy in the stadium and the sense of occasion demanded a high-tempo start. This, after all, was a step up in quality for Ferencváros, and they would struggle to deal with an early wobble. Espanyol, however, are exceptionally considerate hosts these days, and thoughtfully gave their opponents time to settle. Not content with this, they even gifted them the lead on ten minutes. A long ball up the right wing caught Espanyol in their not-really-pressing-but not-in-position-either formation. The Brazilian Isael, who had come in for Boli to lead the line for the visitors, squared towards Tokmac, waiting at the back post. Javi López had let his man get goalside, and nothing could stop his head-down charge towards his own net in a desperate attempt to regain lost ground. Not even the sight of the ball arriving in his path. Not even the sight of it rifling into the bottom corner after he splaffed it off his left shin. 0-1. The captain looked dazed and confused as he got ready for the restart. Everyone else was just confused.
The general air of confusion persisted for the rest of the first half, with the game settling into a pattern familiar to anyone who has been watching the pericos this season. Lots of possession, lots of touches for the full-backs high up the pitch, and lots of turning back to start over again. No chances. Rebrov’s team, for their part, also failed entirely to create anything of note, although the tricky combination of Tokmac and Isael, up against Javi López and Naldo, meant that no Espanyol fans were sitting very comfortably.
Half time, and another opportunity for Gallego to tell his players how disappointed he was. At least he doesn’t have to take the time to prepare a new teamtalk for every match.
The fans enjoyed their half-time bocadillos (beef with red peppers, thank you very much), and the teams emerged unchanged for the second half, determined to see this thing through.
Who knows how long this state of affairs would have continued, had Isael not broken the monotony with an audacious attempt in the 51st minute. A free-kick deep on the right flank represented a decent chance to get the ball in the box, but the forward spotted Diego López off his line and channeled the spirit of Ronaldinho to angle a towering strike towards the top corner. The crowd held its breath as the ball began its curling descent, and Diego López looked on regretfully. The sound off the rebound against the angle of bar and post came as a huge relief, and seemed to spark the home side into life.
Vargas was beginning to find some joy, setting Wu Lei for a couple of chances in quick succession. Ferencváros keeper Dibusz did well to scramble the first effort away in particular, although the Chinese forward’s finishes are lacking a clinical edge at the moment
Calleri came on for Melendo, ineffectual once more, and formed a front three with Wu Lei and Vargas on either side. Lozano took over the role of deep-lying midfielder, with Roca moving further forward alongside Granero. Suddenly everyone was in their best position. A revolutionary tactical advance it was not, but encouraging all the same.
Espanyol were turning the screw, and the Hungarian wall could not hold out much longer. Another nine corners came and went last night without a single decent attempt as a result, but when one of these set pieces was cleared on the hour mark, Marc Roca let the ball drop to ensure everyone was back onside before lifting it back over the defence. He needn’t have bothered waiting, as Blazic was prostrate in the area anyway, but the ball reached Vargas, whose initial header was fumbled onto the post by Dibusz. The Argentinian showed more desire to get to the second ball first, and wapped it into the net from on the goal line. 1-1.
The momentum was with the home side, as the visitors began to drop like flies. They seemed unable to withstand the tempo, and had basically surrendered the entire midfield zone. Hopes were further boosted by the sight of Adrià Pedrosa preparing to replace Dídac, and over the next five to ten minutes the game could have been done and dusted. Javi López had multiple opportunities to cross from the right, most of which yielded disappointing results, but Wu Lei was also getting in behind on the same flank. Dibusz looked unsure even when dealing with crosses lacking pace, and Granero was incredibly unlucky to see his left-footed half volley clip the bar after the goalkeeper had flapped at a typical floated cross from Javi. Pedrosa immediately began to find spaces on the left, with a dangerous low ball deflected agonisingly just beyond Wu Lei as he stretched to get on the end of it.
Tiredness eventually began to take its toll on Espanyol too, and Campuzano’s introduction for the outgoing Vargas was not greeted by the enthusiasm of the previous switches. The young striker hustled and tried to get involved, but the final ten minutes were largely a case of huffing and puffing.
The match ended in a disappointing draw, although the second half had been a lot of fun. Espanyol created enough chances to win the game, and dominated possession, but were not convincing in the manner you would expect against an opponent of this calibre, and so cannot have too many complaints. Was it an improvement on what we have seen so far this season? Well, there is not a single team in La Liga that will lie down and let us walk all over them like Ferencváros did in the second half. Certainly not Real Sociedad, who are the visitors to RCDE stadium on Sunday at 14.00.
Number of “green monsters” at RCDE stadium last night: ~1,000 (The away section had to be extended, and fans and players indulged in a sit-in celebration at the final whistle, and for a good while afterwards.) LINK: Ferencváros fans celebrate a valuable point.
Thumbs up: Bernardo, Lozano, Granero, Vargas, Calleri.
*Shakes head*: Naldo, Javi López, Melendo.
You can watch highlights of the match here.
Elsewhere in group H, Ludogorets came back from a goal down at half time to smash CSKA Moscow 5-1. Yikes.