Just as it looked as if a hard-earned Espanyol victory was going to give David Gallego some much-needed breathing room, up popped Santi Mina to burst the blanc-i-blau bubble. It was a 95th minute punch to the gut, of the kind that leaves you no chance to respond. A share of the points was probably fair on the balance of play, but an Espanyol victory would not have been entirely undeserved after yet another improved second-half display.
Yes, once again, the pericos were slow out of the traps and allowed Celta Vigo to dictate the tempo as things got underway at Balaídos. The home side’s most potent source of danger early on was through the deep crossing of left full-back Lucas Olaza, whose towering deliveries dipped dangerously between the Espanyol centre-back pairing of Naldo and Calero. Diego López was caught in no-man’s land from one such delivery with quarter of an hour played. Santi Mina glanced his header just past the far post when almost anything on target would have opened the scoring.
Both sides had lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, which ensured that the midfield area was fiercely contested. Víctor Sánchez and Marc Roca won the battle over 90 minutes against Lobotka and Beltrán, and also nullified much of the attacking intent of inverted wingers Rafinha and Denis Suárez. Having weathered the initial storm, Espanyol began to find their footing after about twenty minutes, with Wu Lei turning and running directly at the Celta back line, and Calleri disputing everything in the air. The Argentinian striker was a trojan throughout the match and showed several touches of quality. He may not possess a prolific scoring record but he gives players such as Matías Vargas and Wu Lei the opportunity to play off him in the way that Ferreyra doesn’t.
Another Olaza projectile caused havoc in the Espanyol box a few minutes later, with Rafinha dragging his effort just wide from the second ball. This seemed to encourage the visitors to sit back once more, and the match drifted into an uneventful period where both sides were happy to let the opposition have possession in their own half.
Then, as half time approached, Celta rediscovered their rhythm. With captain Hugo Mallo more than capable of marshaling the right flank alone, Rafinha began to drift infield and link up with Suárez and Aspas more readily. Espanyol wer overrun in the 40th minute, with Aspas playing the overlapping Mallo through, but Diego López was off his line quickly to block the attempted square ball. A few minutes later they were at it once more. This time, Santi Mina got across Naldo in the centre but couldn’t quite stretch his big toe to break the deadlock. Espanyol were playing for time and were glad to hear the half-time whistle.
Some System of a Down can do wonders in the changing room though, and Espanyol came out for the second period looking far more aggressive. Pressing high up the itch, Celta couldn’t string any passes together, and this led to the opening goal just two minutes after the restart. Rarely have we seen Espanyol apply a high press in unison this season, but they did so here and forced goalkeeper Rubén Blanco into an uncomfortable left-footed clearance. Naldo made the aerial ball his own and it found its way to Vargas on the right. El Monito showed his customary composure to pick out Calleri in the middle. Araujo managed to block his shot but for once there was support in the box, and Pedrosa lashed Calleri’s lay-off into the net with gusto. 0-1.
Following the goal, Espanyol kept up the pressure, with mixed results. The technically-skilled Celta midfield was able to pass its way out on occasions, but they looked susceptible when caught out. Víctor Sánchez got forward once more in the 54th minute and found Calleri on the edge of the box. Pedrosa was again in an extremely advanced position and his effort on the turn was one of those that goes in if it’s to either side of the keeper. Unfortunately, this one was straight down Blanco’s throat and Pedrosa’s tally stayed at one.
Celta began to regain the territorial advantage but found it difficult to break down the resolute Espanyol defence led by tenacious tackling from Roca and Sánchez. Both managers looked to add more energy on the wing: Brais Méndez replaced Fran Beltrán for Celta while Pipa came on to replace Wu Lei. The 21-year-old was a surprise inclusion in the squad and made his La Liga debut here, taking up a more advanced position than he is used to. It is hard to sell Espanyol’s approach, doubling up with full-backs on both sides, as anything but purely defensive, and the attacking endeavours were limited to the unrelenting Calleri furrowing away, with Pedrosa and Pipa scurrying forward in support. Wu Lei is a bit of a square peg in this formation, and in truth he was practically invisible after half time prior to being pulled off.
If we are looking for good omens, then the sound of the restless home support whistling their side was music to Espanyol ears. Much more accustomed to being on the receiving end of such frustration in recent weeks, the away side were holding firm, and David López came on to replace Vargas to further bolster the area in front of the defence in what was rapidly becoming a backs-to-the-wall job. Vargas, technically excellent, had been neat and tidy without showing his teeth, as he can do when deployed on the left. Fran Escribà threw on Gabriel Fernández and Pione Sisto for a Celta side looking short on ideas for all their possession. Diego López had been a spectator for the entire second half, with a Iago Aspas shot from a tight angle being as close as the home side had come to an equaliser.
The David Gallego masterplan almost came to fruition when Darder, on for Marc Roca, stole the ball from a sloppy Sisto and led the charge upfield. It was four on two. This was the moment of reckoning.
In his shoes, I would not have passed to Pipa. Darder did. The youngster got his effort on target but it was at a good height for Blanco and he pushed it away for a corner. It may be a cliche, but you know what happens when you don’t take your chances. The fact that Espanyol, still with five minutes of stoppage time to play, did not commit a single man forward for the set piece means that perhaps they deserved what happened next.
Pedrosa thought he had dealt with Mallo’s attempted cross as the clock ticked into the final minute, but the Celta man kept the ball in play and spinned past him to swing another hopeful ball into the box. It hadn’t been Santi Mina’s night, but he rose above Naldo and Calero to nod a header which glanced off the far post and into the back of the net. Fortune is fickle, and Espanyol’s luck had just run out.
94 minutes and 20 seconds. One point gained, two dropped. Six games played, four goals scored, five points won. 18th position in La Liga. The kind of numbers that will give David Gallego sleepless nights. RCD Espanyol de Barcelona vs. Real Valladolid, Sunday, 12pm, RCDE stadium. Do or die?