What a difference a point can make. Before the Barcelona derby just over a week ago, the average Espanyol fan experience was akin to that of staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. One late equaliser from Wu Lei Wu Lei Wu Lei Wu Lei Wu Lei later, and we’re walking on sunshine. Perhaps most importantly of all, it was fun.
Abelardo opted for his preferred 4-4-2 formation in his debut in the Espanyol dugout, with Darder in behind Calleri, who led the line with his customary fight and determination. David López and Víctor Gómez were moved forward from defence to anchor the midfield and run the right wing respectively, with Marc Roca and Óscar Melendo, the latter making his first start since mid-September, making up the midfield quartet. Conservatism was the name of the game at full back, with Dídac and Javi López getting the nod. Not the most dynamic of options but fully understandable given the opposition. Naldo partnered Bernardo in the centre, and the fans crossed their fingers that Diego López wouldn’t be too tempted to play it out from the back.
Valverde’s Barça were virtually at full strength: Neto started in goal behind the injured ter Stegen, with a back four of Sergi Roberto, Piqué, Lenglet and Jordi Alba. Arthur’s continued injury struggles meant Busquets would shuffle about behind Rakitic and de Jong in the middle, with Messi, Suárez and Griezmann a formidable trio up front.
The pre-match atmosphere was expectedly fiery, and somewhat surprisingly optimistic given the 29 points and 19 positions between the two sides going into the game. Fans had flooded to the stadium in the hours leading up to kick off, and by 9pm there were over 33,000 inside, representing the club’s highest La Liga attendance in eight years. Most of the empty seats were in the deserted section reserved for visiting fans, as the two Barcelona clubs no longer offer each other away tickets due to mounting hostilities in recent times. The high attendance was a sign of a belief that is difficult to explain given performances so far this season, and an indicator that pericos are far from ready to throw in the towel.
One of the main perpetrators / unfortunate victims (score out as you believe appropriate) of the aforementioned hostilities is, of course, Gerard Piqué. Here, once more, he was briefly subjected to enthusiastic chants questioning the gender identity of his famous pop-star girlfriend, and the fatherhood of his son from sections of the crowd, reportedly drawing the referee’s attention to the issue on-field. In the past Piqué has made pointed public references to “Espanyol de Cornellà”, Cornellà being the Barcelona suburb where RCDE stadium is located, as opposed to Espanyol de Barcelona. He also amused himself by bragging about having more money in his personal bank account than Espanyol’s club budget, on national TV.
Thanks to Piqué, then, for so succinctly highlighting why Wu Lei’s 88th-minute equaliser was so very, very satisfying for the blanc-i-blaus.
Plaudits went to David López and Marc Roca in the middle, effectively nullifying any meaningful contributions from de Jong and Rakitic throughout, and also picking up a goal and am assist respectively. It never does to write off Dídac Vilà, and he had Messi in his back pocket for this one. The Argentine failed to plot any of his trademark slaloms, instead being limited to a couple of more linear dribbles that ended in blocked shots from distance. Barça undoubtedly had Luís Suárez to thank for the draw, his goal and assist both stemming from the area of the pitch occupied by the Naldo-Javi López axis of doom.
Perhaps aided by de Jong heading for an early bath, Abelardo’s subs had a considerable impact, with Iturraspe shoring things up before the returning Matías Vargas played a delicious through ball for Wu Lei to send the crowd into proverbial raptures.
Barça wee hanging on as the full time whistle went, but in the end it was a point apiece. One point that does nothing for the position in the La Liga table – a meagre 11 points halfway through the season doesn’t deserve any other than being bottom of the barrel. But there were smiles on faces, and how often have we seen that since August?
These smiles threatened to burst at the seams two days later when the signing of an actual striker who scores actual goals was announced. Raúl de Tomás, or RDT to his friends, is the man, and he joins on a permanent deal from Benfica for a rather whopping 20 million euros. This has left pericos in the rather disconcerting position of having their wildest dreams blown out of the water by reality. RDT is a product of the Real Madrid youth system, and after scoring 38 goals in two seasons in La Liga 2 on loan at Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano respectively, he really burst onto radars worldwide with 14 goals as Rayo failed to avoid relegation from the top flight last year. Bigger things were calling in the shape of 20-million euro move to Benfica last summer.
The more astute of you will have surmised that this move did not work out particularly well, given that he is now back in Spain for a bare-knuckled relegation scrap. A slow start to the season and an ankle injury meant he had fallen behind Carlos Vinícius in the pecking order, and Chen Yansheng’s willingness to cough up the readies meant everyone could walk away happy. We don’t want to jinx it, but this really feels like the right move at the right time.
Just to up the ante even further, RDT nonchalantly rolled in his first in the blanc-i-blau in the Copa del Rey second-round tie at San Sebastián de los Reyes on Sunday. A trip to the real San Sebastián to face Real Sociedad is the reward, with the tie taking place next Wednesday. First, however, is the small matter of a trip down the Costa Dorada to face Santi Cazorla’s Villarreal (Sunday, 16.00). Espanyol will be looking for revenge for a typically lacklustre 0-1 defeat at RCDE Stadium back in October, in what was Pablo Machín’s first game in charge. Much has changes since then, and we are ready to finally have some fun.