A heavily rotated Espanyol side turned in a complete performance in Bulgaria last night, coming away with the three points against the hitherto indomitable Ludogorets. Solid defensively, balanced in midfield and featuring a cutting edge in the shape of Víctor Campuzano, the pericos can look forward to their final three group games safe in the knowledge that one win should be enough to see them extend their European stay beyond Christmas.
Bernardo in the centre of defence provided the only continuity in terms of personnel from the weekend, but the attitude and organistaion that Pablo Machín has instilled in a little over two weeks in the job were still present. Lluís López and Dídac flanked the Colombian, with Corchia and Javi López chaged with running the lines. The captain performed admirably on an unfamiliar left flank, before putting in a couple of rash challenges which earned him an early bath and briefly put the three points in jeopardy.
Iturraspe, returning after two months out with a shoulder injury, provided a solid base to the midfield which boasted serenity and guile with the inclusion of Granero and Melendo. Granero, aka Steve the Pirate, was a class apart throughout, providing the assurance that you would expect from a player of his experience.
The energetic front pairing of Wu Lei and Campuzano were a constant menace to the Ludogorets defence with their movement, although the latter had considerably more success in terms of interventions with the ball at his feet. Wu Lei’s struggles continue, with a lack composure at key moments perhaps indicative of a player low on confidence.
Espanyol put the home side on the back foot from the off, winning a succession of corners which were almost exclusively aimed at the towering Bernardo from the right boot of Esteban Granero. This is one area that Machín will hope to create more opportunities going forward, and although they didn’t find the target last night the omens were good. Granero’s ability from dead-ball situations is another solid argument for him to be first choice alongside Marc Roca in midfield. Ludogorets were limited to one headed chance of their own, which Diego López did well to hold.
The Bulgarian defence looked uncomfortable with the early pressure, and were slow to get out as goalkeeper Iliev cleared his lines on 13 mintues. Lluís López was aggressive all night long and won the first ball here to send it back towards the opposition area. It shouldn’t have been a dangerous situation but Rafael Forster, the Ludogorets hero in match day two, seemed to misjudge the willingness and speed of Víctor Campuzano, who nipped in behind to execute a left-footed kung-fu kick into the bottom corner. Textbook it perhaps was not, but certainly effective. 0-1.
The home side seemed dazed and failed to muster any response of note. Growing in confidence, Lluís López made the odd expedition forward in an attempt to disrupt a well-organised opposition, teeing up Campuzano for another long-range effort on one occasion. Corchia had the run of the right flank and continues to be almost unique in this Espanyol side in showing himself capable of picking a man out with a cross rather than just firing it in hopefully. Wu Lei and Javi López were wasteful beneficiaries of such situations last night.
The game continued on the same fashion after the break, with Vargas replacing Wu Lei on the hour. On the balance of play, Espanyol could have wrapped things up in the ten minutes that followed, but the home side rode their luck as the ball rattled around their penalty area in a couple of instances to keep them within touching distance. Machín seemed to sense which way the wind was blowing and brought on Marc Roca for Melendo in an attempt to shore things up. An attempt, it must be said, which was largely unsuccessful, as Ludogorets immediately began to find some space between the previously watertight midfield and defence, with first Nedyalkov and then Tchibota running at the retreating back line, although failing to trouble Diego López with the resultant efforts.
These were the moments of greatest peril for Espanyol, who prevented a prolific rival boasting pace and trickery in the attacking positions from getting in behind throughout the encounter. It couldn’t all be plain sailing, thought, and Javi López earned himslef a quickfire double booking with trademark rash challenges, leaving his team a man down for the last three minutes plus stoppages. In the event, it wasn’t quite backs to the wall, but the team rallied well, led by Granero, to see it out and claim top spot in Europa League group H. Roll on the reverse tie in three weeks’ time, when Espanyol can seal their passage to the knockout rounds.
Thumbs up: Bernardo, Lluís López, Granero, Campuzano.
*Shakes head*: Javi’s loss of composure whoch blotted an otherwise decent performance.
Elsewhere in group H, Ferencváros claimed a surprise win in Moscow over CSKA, thanks to a late goal from Roland Vargas. CSKA are rubbish.
Espanyol are now heading to Valencia for a 4pm kickoff on Sunday against Levante. See you then for a match preview. Cheers.