La Liga, like most major European leagues, is a twenty-team league where the aim is to finish first, or, if you can’t do that, then finish seventeenth. The bad news is that Espanyol have no chance of doing the former, but the good news is they are one of a select bunch who are heading into the final straight with a solid chance of achieving the latter.
The main pack has all but disappeared from sight, and while someone like Levante, Valladolid or Alavés is still perfectly capable of tripping over their own heels and making it a five-horse race, the odds are that only one of Mallorca, Leganés, Celta Vigo and Espanyol will be on the starting line come August, when it starts all over again. The remaining sixteen rounds of fixtures are going to be a protracted battle, and its time to analyse the opponents.
The finishing line
With 22 games played, Mallorca are in the coveted 17th spot, with 18 points. This represents an average of 0.82 points/game, which means we could estimate that just 32 points will be enough to beat the drop. For Espanyol, it means picking up at least 17 points from the remaining 16 games. Since Abelardo joined, the pericos have picked up five points in four league games, which shows they are on the right track.
Taking a look at the remaining fixtures, handily colour coded to highlight the probability of picking up points in each match (based on pre-season estimates), it really becomes evident that there is no time like the present for Espanyol. Home games against all of their direct rivals, as well as Alavés, Levante and Eibar, certainly offer hope. Until, that is, you remember that Espanyol have failed to win a singe match at RCDE Stadium in La Liga this season. Four points from 11 opportunities is nothing short of pathetic, and relegation is inevitable unless something changes. Tomorrow at noon, Mallorca are the visitors. The stadium is sold out (tickets for a fiver will do that), and it goes without saying that three points are the minimum requirement.
Six wins could be enough. Winning consists of scoring more goals than your opponent. Have the blanc-i-blau got what is takes?
Three goals in three games (and one of the bench is the Copa) since joining make Raúl de Tomás Espanyol’s leading scorer already. An embarrassing statistic for his new team mates, but nonetheless a clear advantage in the relegation battle. Martin Braithewaite (6 goals) doesn’t really pose the same threat for Leganés, who also recently sold En Neysri to Sevilla, while Mallorca have relied on Ante Budimir (8), and Celta Vigo fans must be wondering whether the efforts of Iago Aspas (7) are going to be enough to save them once more.
The addition of RDT was eye-catching and rather unprecedented for Espanyol, made all the more remarkable as it was accompanied by the arrivals of Leandro Cabrera from Getafe, Adrián Embarba from Rayo Vallecano, and Oier Olazábal from Levante, all on permanent deals. This brought the total January spending to over 40 million euros, blowing all other La Liga clubs out of the water, and raising the issue of why such willingness to invest was not shown back in the summer. Needs must, I suppose.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the Espanyol side facing the second half of the season is literally not the same one that trudged through the first. Of their nearest rivals , only Leganés could be said to have refreshed their squad significantly, signing off on loan deals for Ibrahim Amadou from Sevilla and Roger Assalé from Young Boys. The latter will have his work cut out to fill the boots of the influential En Neysri, though.
Celta Vigo also received a 20 million euro offer they couldn’t refuse for a key man in January, with Stan Lobotka packing his bags and heading to Napoli. The loan signings of Jeison Murillo and especially Fedor Smolov look like square pegs in round holes.
Mallorca have a smaller budget than any other top-flight clubs, but the temporary deals struck for Leonardo Koutris from Olympiakos and Alejandro Pozo from Sevilla look like decent pieces of business for the islanders.
The differencial factor could come in the shape of the big man on the bench. Mallorca are the only one of the strugglers to stick with their coach, with Vicente Moreno rightly enjoying the full support of his club. Celta Vigo brought in Óscar Garcia back in November, but the man whose career highlights include leading Brighton into the Championship playoffs and waltzing to a couple of Austrian league titles titles with RB Salzburg has failed to impress and is feeling the pressure. November also saw the arrival of the foul-mouthed Mexican Javier Aguirre at Leganés. This could well turn out to be a slightly more inspired appointment, with the former Espanyol coach able to draw upon a wealth of experience from stints at clubs such as Osasuna, Atlético and Zaragoza, as well as the Mexico national side.
The question is, would you swap him for Abelardo? The Espanyol coach has wasted no time in winning the fans over and seemingly getting the dressing room on board where his predecessors couldn’t, although there are still, of course, plenty of question marks. Why is he so willing to play with the Naldo-Javi López axis of doom? Why has the promising Víctor Gómez been banished from the first team picture? David López has been immense since moving forward into midfield, but can the side really do without him at the back? Will he manage to squeeze the best out of the obviously talented Matías Vargas? Questions that will need direct answers if survival is to be achieved.
We’re sorry Celta fans, but it looks the writing is on the wall for you, and we can’t see you righting the ship in time. Mallorca, likewise, surely just don’t have the quality within their ranks to make it over the finish line.
Which means that we expect (and, to be honest, hope) that the main contenders for 17th place are Espanyol de Barcelona, and Leganés. Today, Lega visit Levante, and tomorrow we welcome Mallorca to RCDE Stadium in a showdown at noon. Let the battle commence.