The international break hasn’t half dragged on, but La Liga is finally back. For Espanyol, this means another gruelling three weeks lie ahead, with two more Europa League group games thrown into the mix:
- 20/10 – Villarreal (H)
- 24/10 – Ludogorets (A)
- 27/10 – Levante (A)
- 30/10 – Athletic Bilbao (A)
- 2/11 – Valencia (H)
- 7/11 – Ludogorets (H)
- 10/11 – Atlético de Madrid (A)
Gulp. Having gained a miserly five points from a relatively easy set of fixtures, the next few weeks see a dramatic rise in difficulty for the blanc-i-blau. As we saw on Friday, Espanyol theoretically enjoyed the easiest run of opening matches of any side in La Liga. If we apply the same method to the next five games, the average difficulty coefficient rises from 9.4 to 16.2 – more difficult than any other team has faced so far.
To say Pablo Machín has his work cut out would be an understatement. Without making excuses before his tenure has even begun, Espanyol sitting anywhere above eighteenth in three weeks time would be something of a success, and would give us something to build on for the rest of the campaign. Should that not be the case, allowances will have to be made for the size of the challenge.
Today’s opponents are the chilled-out entertainers of La Liga. Led by the magical Sant Cazorla, they have outplayed virtually all their opponents this season, with the possible exception of Barcelona (although they were unlucky to lose at the Camp Nou). However, the fact that they contrived to lose at Osasuna and Levante, despite being the better side, provides encouragement of a sort. In addition, no fewer than seven of their regular starting XI have been away on international duty over the past fortnight (only Matías Vargas, Adrià Pedrosa and possibly Wu Lei would expect to start from Espanyol’s international contingent). Cazorla, Gerard Moreno, Pau Torres and Raúl Albiol were all involved for Spain as they sealed their qualification for Euro 2020, Ekambi and Anguissa joined up with the Cameroon squad for a friendly in Tunisia, and Samuel Chukwueze travelled all the way to Singapore for a showcase match against Brazil.
Jetlag and fatigue notwithstanding, Javier Calleja’s side are expected to line up in their familiar 4-2-3-1. Asenjo seems to be first choice in goal, while Rubén Peña and Xavi Quintillà have been favoured at full back. Albiol and Torres are indisputable in the centre of defence.
The midfield trio of Anguissa, Iborra and Cazorla is as creative a combination as Espanyol have come up against so far this year, but often fail to provide much protection to the back line. If Espanyol can get Marc Roca on the ball, he could take them out of the game with direct passes forward.
Ekambi and Chukwueze provide raw pace from the flanks, although Moi Gómez and Javi Ontiveros provide creative alternatives should Cazorla require assistance to pick the lock. Former perico Gerard Moreno is top scorer in La Liga with six goals in eight matches, and will receive a warm welcome at RCDE Stadium from the fans who were delighted to see him make his debut for Spain last week.
Two sides who are weak defensively, one that is prolific in front of goal, and the other that doesn’t seem to know where the goal is. This will need to change if Espanyol are to get anything from this afternoon’s match. Machín’s approach promises more direct football, and the hope is that the attacking players will benefit from extra space around the opposition’s penalty area.
Melendo and Piatti have picked up knocks in training this week and miss out, as does Iturraspe, in the final stages of his recovery from the shoulder injury that has kept him out for the past two months. Javi López, Lluís López, Lozano, Puado and Campuzano have all been left out. Is this an early indication that Machín will not put his faith in youth as much as David Gallego did?
The fact that Pedros and Vargas have been absent for the majority of the training sessions over the past two weeks will probably count against them this afternoon, although Melendo’s injury could force Machín’s hand to include the Argentine. We expect Calleri to lead the line, with Vargas just behind. Darder could form a midfield three along with Roca and Víctor Sánchez, in an attempt to prevent Villarreal from running the show. Dídac may get the nod at left wing-back, with Corchia on the right. David López, Bernardo and Calero looks like the most natural back three, although Naldo will hope to have impressed his new boss. Diego.
If ever there was a match where the performance was more important than the result, this may be it. Zero points and one goal at home so far leaves plenty of room for improvement, and Espanyol have to show they are at least capable of it. We’d take a 2-2 draw. ¡Vamos Espanyol!