Espanyol on tour are a different proposition to the shadow of a team that has been turning out at RCDE stadium this season, and last night they sustained their unbeaten record on the road in all competitions with a convincing 0-2 in Moscow against CSKA.
In a new-look back four, David López took his place in the starting lineup for the first time this year alongside Calero. Likewise, the first-choice full-back pair of Corchia and Pedrosa were selected together for the first time. In midfield, David Gallego opted for a trio of Marc Roca, Víctor Sánchez and Granero, with Vargas, Calleri and Wu Lei leading the line. Everyone will have their own preferences but there was no hint of rotation or prioritisation of La Liga here: this was a full-strength Espanyol. Sergi Darder was not even on the bench, but will likely be the first name on the team sheet for the Mallorca game on Sunday.
Goncharenko’s troops also lined up as expected, with Bistrovic in for Oblyakov the only change from the side we predicted.
CSKA started the match at a frenetic pace, forcing Espanyol onto the back foot and putting the new-look back four to the test immediately. The blanc-i-blau wall held firm, though, with the leadership of David López instrumental. They had taken up a deep position which they would maintain throughout the match: the territorial battle was surrendered freely. The Russians struggled to get in behind at all, but kept pericos on the edge of their seats with long-range shots, Vlasic stretching Diego López with an effort from distance on 11 minutes. The Croatian was CSKA’s most threatening presence by some distance last night, showing a willingness and ability to take players on and get a shot off that was lacking in some of his comrades.
The tempo was relentless and Calleri would be the first victim, going down with a muscular complaint just after the 20-minute mark. The Argentine was in no shape to continue, with Campuzano getting the call to arms. It seems unlikely that Calleri will return in time for Mallorca, meaning that Campuzano and Wu Lei are the top candidates to lead from the front in La Palma. Just as well then, that Moscow turned out to be a happy hunting ground for the duo. For the moment, though, the scarlet onslaught continued apace. The majority of play was in Espanyol’s half, but key players such as Mario Fernandes were failing to intervene in any meaningful way, and the danger of the counter-attack was clearly playing on Russian minds. This was perhaps the most sprightly Espanyol we have seen all season: Corchia, Pedrosa, Vargas, Wu Lei and Campuzano all encourage defenders to take an extra step backwards.
As the half-time whistle approached, Espanyol were still dreaming of their first effort on goal, and the positive impression they were giving was largely due to be combative performance on display from Marc Roca, Víctor Sánchez and Pedrosa in particular. Mario Fernandes got his first change out of Pedrosa in the final minute of the half, but Sigurdsson could only nod a disappointing header into Diego López’s warm embrace. Going into the changing rooms level is something of a novelty for pericos these days, and was certainly a source of encouragement. Stick on some System of a Down y a por ellos.
The home side initially tried to continue in the same vain, but they hadn’t read the script. Espanyol had lost the option of the long ball out of danger with the exit of Calleri, and had to search for a more enterprising method of relieving the pressure. Granero’s shot from distance didn’t present Akinfeev with any difficulties, but at least woke him up from his slumber. CSKA tried to respond quickly into the space that the visitors had vacated for almost the first time in the contest. Thus began a period of end-to-end football that would ultimately bring about the breakthrough.
Matías Vargas was roving freely and turned in space to play Campuzano clean through with 51 minutes on the clock. The youngster had to dribble the whole opposition half before he could shoot, from a narrowing angle on the left, Akinfeev got down well to parry his shot towards the far corner, grateful that the shot was not as low and hard as it could have been. The cracks were appearing in the red barrier, although it was unclear whether Espanyol would be capable of exploiting them. Vargas aside, there was not a great deal of imagination in possession, but, in the end, the Argentine’s creativity would prove sufficient.
CSKA continued to shoot with imprecision, but Mario Fernandes was moving further and further forward in a clear declaration of attacking intent. Then Vargas received the ball in a pocket of space. Only on the halfway line, his control was instant and his movement direct. Wu Lei was on his bike immediately, with the labouring Magnusson all at sea. Wu Lei has looked short on confidence in front of goal recently, but any ghosts were banished here. Letting Vargas’ inch-perfect through ball roll across his body, he chipped it back across Akinfeev and into the net. 0-1.
The stadium has been silenced, and it seemed as if some of the wind had been knocked from CSKA lungs. They kept coming, of course, but largely lacked quality against the well-marshalled Espanyol defence. Sights of goal were fleeting and the only real scare came on 85 minutes, when Fernandes connected on the volley from a corner. It would have been a cruel twist of fate, but Diego López gathered comfortably as the strike was directed once more at his chest.
In the end, the wheels completely fell off the red machine, and Campuzano had the opportunity to wrap things up. Vargas scooped a classy flick into his path in stoppage time, and the striker will feel he could have been more clinical with a finish that was too close to Akinfeev. The legendary goalkeeper was just about keeping his side in the tie, but he was fighting a losing battle. Piatti had joined the party by this time and was quick to close down when Magnusson attempted a headed backpass two minutes later. Akinfeev was quick off his line but the rebound fell to Campuzano as the Espanyol forwards swarmed, and he showed all the poise that hadn’t been in evidence with his earlier opportunities to round the keeper, steady himself, and roll the ball into the corner beyond the sprawling Magnusson. 0-2.
The players made a point of celebrating with Gallego on the touchline, making clear where their loyalties lie. Of course, this is no guarantee of success, but at least demonstrates a togetherness which has been questioned by some.
Ludogorets thumped Ferencváros 0-3 last night, despite going down to ten men in the first half. They are group leaders on six points, with Espanyol in second place on four. The upcoming double-header against the Bulgarian champions should decide the final shape of the group.
The squad will now fly directly to Mallorca for a noon kickoff on Sunday. Naldo is expected to join up with the rest of the contingent there, with Calero suspended after last week’s red card. Confidence should be somewhat higher than it has been for a while, and a timely win to take us out of the relegation zone before the international break would be just the trick.