This time last week Espanyol had eight points and were two points from “safety”, whereas this time this week they have eight points and are three adrift of Mallorca in the prized 17th spot. One goal scored and five conceded in the two intervening fixtures may lead you to surmise that not a whole lot of progress has been made, and you may well be right.
Athletic Bilbao vs Espanyol
Spirits were high going into last Wednesday’s visit to San Mamés to take on Athletic Club, but it soon became apparent that Espanyol were still feeling the effects of the hangover brought on by giddy back-to-back wins over Ludogorets and Levante. Going 2-0 down in the opening 15 minutes probably put a metaphorical spanner in Pablo Machín’s gameplan, with Iker Muniain first pouncing opportunistically on a loose ball in the area, and then thumping a lovely long-range strike on the bounce soaring over Diego López and into the top corner. Espanyol were more than holding their own overall, but the home side were teaching them a rather important lesson: shoot and you might score. The blanc-i-blau preferred to do it their own way, repeatedly attacking down the flanks, only to settle for a corner after looking up and seeing only Víctor Campuzano standing forlornly in the box, the shadow of the towering Bilbao centre-backs looming large.
This was plan A and plan B and it almost paid off on a couple of occasions: Bernardo had the ball in the net from a set piece only to be ruled marginally offside (let’s not get started on the VAR margin for error), and David López drew a fingertip save from Unai Simón from a well worked corner routine. The half time oranges came with Bilbao delighted to be two up in an even contest.
It was tough to see what Espanyol could change to shift the flow of the match in their favour, a sentiment that Machín evidently shared, opting to change nothing. Both teams shuffled back and forth determinedly until the first subs came on around the hour mark: Granero and Ferreyra came into the fray as Athletic began to turn the screw. Iñigo Córdoba and Raúl García had decent chances before Muniain was played through on goal with 78 minutes on the clock. Víctor Gómez did fantastically well to prevent the winger from sealing his hat-trick, unfortunately scoring an own goal in the process. 3-0.
Now that the game was safely out of reach, Espanyol could take the handbrake off. David López, the only one of the three centre-backs charged with bringing the ball out from the back who looks as if he has any idea how to bring the ball out from the back, stepped into the pocket and lofted a perfect through ball into the path of Wu Lei, who only had to nudge it past the onrushing Unai to open his account for the season. Nudge he did, but, alas, against the keeper’s legs, and that was all she wrote. 3-0 was flattering to the hosts – the kind of comment that sounds a bit like an excuse mostly because it is.
Espanyol vs Valencia
If San Mamés is something of a fortress for Athletic Bilbao, then RCDE stadium is a veritable tin shed, and this is where Espanyol rolled out the red carpet to welcome Valencia on Saturday. Los Che are having a mixed old time of it since they appointed Albert Celades, the Spanish Gary Neville, to replace the wildly successful Marcelino in September, and can’t seem to decide whether they are really good or really rubbish. We were hoping for the latter and things were looking good as Espanyol began the match pressing high up the pitch and gaining the territorial advantage in familiar frenzied and misdirected fashion. When they near the goal they are more timid than a pubescent teen on his first date – desperate to score but completely clueless as to the right moves to make to get there.
The corner-accumulation mahine was in working order, however, and Sergi Darder fired in what could optimistically be called a warning shot on eight minutes, which Cillessen did well to tip over the bar. Another corner. The match was remarkably one-sided, and with just a solitary Cheryshev effort on the counter-attack as a bad omen, it slowly dawned on the crowd that this was the most complete performance they had seen so far this season.
Naturally, when the referee awarded a penalty in Espanyol’s favour on the half-hour mark, everyone waited patiently for the decision to be reversed by VAR. But no! A needless handball by Kondogbia was just the helping hand the home side needed, today was the day! Marc Roca exhibited the kind of composure that has been all too noticeable by its absence this campaign, sending Cillessen the wrong way and stroking home into the bottom corner. 1-0.
Espanyol then did whatever any self-respecting relegation contender would do in this unfamiliar situation: they shat it. Bernardo led the way with a couple of individual errors to set pulses racing, although Valencia’s wingers Cheryshev and Ferran Torres didn’t seem particularly keen on getting back in the game. Rodrigo did send an authentic warning shot whistling just over the bar from a tight angle, but half time came without further incident. Skies were clear and the sun was shining.
It was all too good to be true. The dreaded Simon and Garfunkel playlist must have made a reappearance in the changing rooms, as Espanyol emerged looking flat and incapable of maintaining their high-octane approach. The game seemed to be drifting into familiar territory when the visitors were awarded a penalty for a Darder trip on Diakhaby, but for once VAR took pity and pericos breathed a sigh of relief. Briefly buoyed by this turn of events, the tide turned once more and the game was there for the taking. First Víctor Sánchez, from a freekick, and then Pedrosa, getting on the end of a nice piece of link-up play from Darder and Wu Lei, failed entirely to test Cillessen. The clouds closed in.
Referee Pizarro was desperate to give another penalty, and seized his moment when Víctor Gómez laid a hand on Rodrigo’s shoulder with a little over 20 minutes left on the clock. Unfortunately, the Spanish international striker seemed to suffer some sort of back spasm at that precise instant, meaning that VAR would not come to Espanyol’s rescue this time. Dani Parejo stuck his laces on it, Diego López kept his gloves clean, and it was 1-1.
Celades, without Carlos Soler and Gonçalo Guedes through injury, had brought on Rubén Sobrino and Manu Vallejo with the result that Pedrosa and Víctor Gómez were no longer getting forward at all. Wu Lei had had his most effective match of the season, but Vargas was on in his place and was having the kind of impact that made you wonder if he was on some kind of medication.
In brief, Espanyol were spent. Kondogbia slammed a long-range strike into the advertising hoardings just past the post, but it was only a matter of time. Rodrigo was dropping into space at will, and picked up the ball on the left on 78 minutes. Maxi Gómez, much like his opposite number Ferreyra, had made virtually no contribution to the flow of the match, but, unlike Ferreyra, he remained alert and pounced when opportunity arose. Rodrigo’s dipping cross to the front post was wicked, and Gómez’s header was past Diego in a flash. 1-2.
There was nothing for it but to send Naldo up top and launch hopeful long balls. This had the predictable effect of presenting Valencia with no problems whatsoever, and six minutes of stoppage time was merely delaying the inevitable. Six home matches and six defeats is Espanyol’s unenviable record, roll on Ludogorets on Thursday!