Confidence is flowing through the city of Barcelona at the moment, from Les Corts all the way to the beaches of Sant Marti. A city associated with football, its teams are giving them plenty of excitement. Yes, that’s right, “teams” – plural.
FC Barcelona are still in with a chance of winning the treble and are playing their best football of the past few years. But, the other team in the city have much to shout about themselves, boasting chances of success too.
RCD Espanyol, the team in the shadow of their affluent neighbours, the first team in Spain to be formed exclusively by Spanish fans, is providing hope for its supporters once again with a campaign that is soaring after a stuttering start.
Over recent years Espanyol have become known more for their combativeness than charisma, a hard-working side grafting their way towards achieving what little they can. Since the new millennium they have finished in the top half of the Primera just four times, which can be considered an underachievement given the personnel at their disposal during that time.
In the Copa del Rey they have only got past the quarter-finals stage once in the last 15 years – they just so happened to win it that year in 2006 – and on the three occasions they have featured in Europe in that period, two have been marked with third-round exits in the UEFA Cup, the other saw them reach the 2007 final of the same competition which ended in heartbreak.
This term though, under the tutelage of former player Sergio Gonzalez, Espanyol are combining steel with newfound style that has them sitting eighth in the table – one place off Europe – and they are just one positive result away from the final of the Copa del Rey. There’s the possibility they could do their very own treble – attain a strong league position, qualify for Europe with the Copa to parade in late May.
It’s all come together fairly quickly; Espanyol are hitting their peak when it matters most but this wasn’t something that looked feasible before winter.
This is Sergio’s first senior coaching job and the first few months of the season reflected that; a lack of clarity on the pitch with an underwhelming feeling yet again, a few individuals stood out but not too many, and results were poor. It took Espanyol till jornada five to get their first win of the league season, it took them another two to find their second victory and a further six weeks to get their third.
At the start of jornada 13 they were 11th, the same as that stage the previous season and like the last campaign more months of mediocrity beckoned. Then they went on a run, winning five of their next six games in all competitions, losing only to Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
That period seemed to inspire a sense of positivity and belief into all associated with the club; suddenly they were playing well and winning, a turning point that was much-needed.
They’re still running and winning, taking six points from their last four away matches in the league, the latest against seventh-placed Malaga last weekend. Of the three teams (Malaga and Celta Vigo the others) who are best equipped to battle it out for the final Europa League place till the end of the campaign, it’s Espanyol who have form and momentum on their side.
In their last ten games (all comps) they have faced Real Madrid, Sevilla (three times), Valencia (twice), Celta, Athletic, Almeria and Malaga. They won five, drew one and lost four.
It’s in the cup that they’ve saved their best performances for and unsurprisingly where the shower of praise has been heaped on the players and coach. A routine win over two legs against Deportivo Alaves was followed by a tie against Valencia.
The Valencian press called this a free run to the semi-final given Real Madrid, Atletico and Barcelona were all in the other half of the draw. A 2-1 loss at Mestalla meant it was all to play for at Cornella and even though they were behind in the tie, there was an intelligence about Espanyol.
All season their rivals had pressed in numbers and countered at speed but Sergio’s side didn’t give them that satisfaction. Instead they waited for their moments, frustrated Nuno’s men, and when Valencia were reduced to 10 men, they threw everything at them. Felipe Caicedo scored two brilliantly taken goals to deservedly send the Catalans through to the quarter-finals; he’s been at the heart of this excellent run.
The transformation from looking overweight, disinterested and incapable of providing consistent performances to a confident free-scoring centre forward has been staggering. That in itself symbolises Espanyol’s season. There’s a freshness about Caicedo; he’s willing to run, he can use his power to hold the ball up, his touch and link up play is generally good and he wins balls in the air.
He can score and different types of goals too. A brave header then a two-touch finish in the box against Los Che was followed up by a sublime strike from outside the area in the next round against Sevilla. He’s scored nine in total, the majority in the last month. This is Caicedo’s eighth club yet he’s just 26; he does, however, looked to have found a home where he’s accepted by all.
By his side, captain Sergio Garcia continues to be the class act that takes this team up a notch. His touch, vision and movement are among the best in the league and with age he is continually maturing into a fine all-round player. He may be a product of La Masia across town but there’s no doubting his commitment to the club and he has embraced the status of an icon. At 31 he’s still incredibly fit and is showing no signs of slowing down, indeed, he even rejected one last big-money move to China in order to continue playing at the highest level possible. In an interview with the club’s TV channel earlier this week, Garcia said:
A captain can’t jump ship. These are my people and this is my home. It was a very tempting offer and money is great, but it’s not everything.
Once again Garcia’s hit double figures for goals and is well on his way to setting a personal best in that respect needing just four more. His technical ability along with experience and intelligence to drop off into gaps allow him to create and with nine assists he’s the player everyone pins their hopes on to offer the subtlety or game-changing moment. He’s certainly leading by example.
Christian Stuani’s contribution has been massive too. Given Garcia’s reluctance to be rotated, more often than not it’s either the Uruguayan or Caicedo who get the nod to partner the Spaniard. Despite being in competition the duo seem at peace with each other which is undoubtedly benefitting the rest of the team.
Stuani has started fewer games than his fellow strikers but is proving to be the most efficient in front of goal, 12 in all competitions, and importantly he is adding more attributes to his game beyond the role of a target man.
Lucas Vazquez on the wing has been a livewire and refreshingly good in his first season in the top-flight. Signed on loan from Real Madrid’s “B” team, the transition into first-team football has been seamless. His enthusiasm, work-rate and humility make him a likeable character but there’s quality to accompany that through his quick-thinking, positive use of the ball and end product in the final third with three goals and five assists. WhoScored.Com have awarded the 23-year-old four man of the match awards for his dazzling displays too.
Three of those four hit the back of the net in the 3-1 win over Sevilla at home in the first leg of the quarter-finals in which the Andalusians were pounded, especially in the second half, with quick counter attacks, neat interplay, attacks from the flanks which deserved more than three goals. If the first leg was all about the forwards then those behind them deserve recognition for their role in the second.
Centre-backs Hector Moreno and Alvaro Gonzalez cleared everything in a dominant performance; the tenacity of Victor Sanchez is complementing the ability of Canas in the middle of the park while the energy of Victor Alvarez brings a balance to the engine room.
In goal, Kiko Casilla is one of the league’s highly-rated number one’s but Pau Lopez has showed tremendous confidence when he’s stepped in for cup matches. In Ruben Duarte they have a promising and composed young full-back.
Against Athletic Club in the first leg of the semi-finals at the San Mames, it was a complete team display, very possibly the best of the season and they ought to have come away from the game with more than one foot in the final. 1-1 didn’t do them justice. They played like the home side, they were more daring with a much better flow to their game than Los Leones. Victor Sanchez also scored one of the goals of the season.
From appearing to be trudging towards another year of nothingness, Espanyol have become a team and a solid one at that, capable of hurting anyone with their enviable quality at the top end of the pitch. As one Espanyol fan told me: “We are a team with capitals!”
The momentum is with Sergio’s men. By Saturday they could (should) go within three points of Malaga and are favourites to make the Copa final… most likely against Barcelona. This must feel like a dream for all Periquitos and so it should; after all the last time they were in a position like this, they won the King’s Cup; the stuff of dreams.