Sunday’s showdown against Getafe was definitely a Big Match. This much was evident from the pre-match promotions and entertainment that the club had organised. Ticket prices were slashed and slashed again in a attempt to lure more closet pericos out to RCDE stadium, 1-euro shuttle buses were put on from Barcelona city centre, and pathetic little plastic blanc-i-blau flags were curled lovingly between seats before kickoff. This is a final ran slogan that had been force fed to us via the social media drip all week long.
The stage was set and everyone was ready. Apart from the Espanyol players, of course. Two weeks of intensive training, free from the troublesome distractions of competitive football, had done nothing to sharpen minds, and the home side was still creaking into gear as Getafe leapt forward from the off. Marc Cucurella was visibly delighted with the space being afforded him to cut in from left-wing-back, and he duly provoked the first save of the game inside two minutes, Diego López getting down well to block his low, hard effort. David López just about scrambled it away and the defenders looked around each other, hoping for a chance for a wee breather to let them get organised. This process of organisation was still very much in the early development stage as Getafe got the ball back into play quickly. Oliveira didn’t really control the ball properly on the left wing, and he didn’t really put too much thought into his lofted cross, but then again he didn’t really have to. Most fans remained calmly seated as Jaime Mata headed back across goal and into the gaping net, after all, he had clearly bulldozed through the back of Calero and thus the goal would be quickly chalked off with the help of VAR. Upon further inspection, however, it became evident that Calero had merely wilted like a daisy at the back post, the combined threat of the ball ruffling his hair and Mata’s deep breathing seemingly too much to handle for the ex-Valladolid man. 0-1.
This was far from the end of young Fernando’s troubles for the afternoon, the rest of which he spent dithering unconvincingly between central defence and left-back, failing with a spectacular number of simple short passes, and generally being the catalyst for all-out panic whenever he got near the ball. In a seriously competitive field, he is undoubtedly the Espanyol player with most individual errors to his name so far this season. Naldo will be back from suspension next week, which at least gives Machín another option. A rock and a hard place indeed.
Getafe are a well-drilled side, but it would be fair to say that they are not purveyors of the most stylish brand of football in La Liga. On Sunday, they seemed content to sit back and look for a physical battle rather than really press home their advantage. This may be part of the reason that, despite almost qualifying for the Champions League last season and regularly occupying the more lofty positions in the table, they appeared to have brought a total of zero fans with them to Barcelona. Not that Espanyol are in any position to be giving out lessons. The early goal was a metaphorical bucket of cold water and they fairly quickly settled into their clear gameplan of knocking it long into the channels for Wu Lei to chase, and hope the Chinese Duracell bunny could win a corner or draw a foul. In this respect, he completed his task with aplomb, although referee González Fuertes deemed many of Djené’s body checks and flying pile-drivers to be fair game.
In the absence of Granero and Vargas from the starting lineup, Víctor Sánchez was on set-piece duty. Many of his deliveries were of a good standard, dipped in to the near post area rather than floated hopefully towards the back stick as we have seen in previous matches. David López thought he had headed the equaliser on one such occasion in the 20th minute, but David Soria stuck out a hand instinctively to maintain his side’s advantage. The game was disjointed, with Marc Roca and Víctor Sánchez prioritising defensive duties over attacking endeavours, and any thoughts they might have had of taking up a more advanced position were put on hold a couple of minutes later as Ángel fluffed his lines when Cucurella picked him out at the back post.
Alarming defensive fragility asides, Espanyol were making all the running, with Wu Lei continually getting into dangerous positions. Víctor Campuzano was nominally leading the line, with Ferreyra and Calleri apparently not fit enough even for a place on the bench, but if anyone was going to get on the scoresheet, it was Wu. Who? Wu. That’s who.
He had a couple of headed chances as Víctor Gómez began to have more of an influence down the right wing, and horribly shanked an effort into La Curva as a bouncing ball broke his way inside the penalty area with only a couple of minutes to go until the break. He needed something else. He needed a chance that was impossible to miss.
When Diego López decided to venture outside his box on 45 minutes before throwing the striker with a neat Cruyff turn and playing a pass straight back towards his own goal for Calero – of all the surefooted people – to clear, we were fully convinced that we had seen the day’s highlight. But no! There was time for one last corner, a flick from Bernardo, and a certain number 7 to gratefully prod home from almost on the goal line. 1-1. Half time, thank you very much. Cue deafening whistles for a thoroughly incompetent refereeing display.
The opening period had been entertaining, if low on quality, with both sides having cause to be optimistic about their chances of claiming the three points. The second half was, in a word, rubbish.
Nothing happened for quite a while. Molina came on for Ángel and promptly grazed the outside of the post before any of the Espanyol backline had noticed he was on the pitch. Vargas replaced Víctor Sánchez and got injured in his first involvement. (He is now expected to be out for around a month with a sprained ankle.) Granero came on for him and got a booking equally sharpish. Getafe decided they were happy with a point and started lying down whenever they could, and Machín threw on Kevin Soni for a laugh. The young Cameroonian striker hopefully won’t reflect too much on his first-team debut, which did include one comedy half volley into the stands and several equally poor touches with various parts of the body. Onwards and upwards. Espanyol’s only real effort on goal came from the centre circle, as Marc Roca tried to take advantage of David Soria’s ill-advised attempt to imitate Diego’s outfield moves. He missed.
So, the kind of game you’d expect to be fairly even and probably end in a draw turned out to be just that. For Espanyol this season, that is a definite improvement.
Next up is Ferencváros in Budapest on Thursday (feet up as the job is already done in the Europa League), and then the next final against Osasuna at RCDE Stadium on Sunday. Until then.