And then there were three. It might have been third versus fourth at the Montjuic in La Liga on Saturday night but Espanyol Barcelona certainly didn’t buy that. From the word go, the high flying “other” club from the Catalan capital played with their hearts on their sleeves and sliced through Villarreal like a knife through butter. It was an entertaining and clinical performance from this Espanyol side that strutted to a 3-0 victory over the Yellow Submarine.
Going into Saturday’s clash, Espanyol had 33 points from 17 matches with a 13 game unbeaten sequence while their opponents Villarreal had 32 points from 17 matches, had won just 1 of their last 5 league encounters but had been victorious in 9 of their 12 way games in all competitions. Now Espanyol have 36 points and have won yet another match by scoring thrice. Espanyol stay in third, just 1 point off their bitter rivals FC Barcelona while Villarreal have now slipped to fifth after Atletico Madrid beat Deportivo la Coruna away at the Riazor on Sunday.
The tone of the match was set in the 9th minute when Espanyol’s darling Captain Fantastic Raul Tamudo found himself graciously placed at the end of a magnificent one-two with Fernandez Luis Garcia that carved open the Villarreal backline. Tamudo being Tamudo could make no mistake in tucking the ball past a helplessly outstretched Sebastian Viera. 9 minutes gone and Espanyol were 1-0 up.
1-0 turned to 2-0 just 5 minutes later when brilliance contrived with good luck. Luis Garcia’s 25-yard free-kick struck the woodwork and the ball came happily with its arms wide open towards midfielder Valmiro Valdo. The cheeky flick that Valdo instinctively pulled out of his bags of tricks did have an element of luck in it but it was his technique that won the hearts of the Espanyol fans gathered at the Montjuic.
Throughout the first 45 minutes, Espanyol ran Manuel Pellegrini’s side ragged. Everytime that the Periquitos attackers went marching towards Villarreal’s citadel in droves, you always discerned a strong scent of a goal. Luis Garcia had his free-kick saved by Viera in the 23rd minute and then saw his cheeky chip fly just inches off the mark 5 minutes later. In the 35th minute there was yet another Espanyol breakaway that could only be terminated by a foul on Luis Garcia in front of Villarreal’s penalty area, a foul that the officials ridiculously chose to ognore.
But there was poetic justice 1 minute later. Tamudo was once again at the end of it. The man who was born in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, who has been a one-club man for all his footballing career, who loves Espanyol with his life headed home from inside the 6-yard box from a corner flicked on by his team mate Valdo. Soon after Espanyol could’ve gone 3-0 up and wrap up the match but Albert Riera’s fierce left-footed shot parried wide.
The second half was a much tighter affair though with Manuel Pellegrini shoring up his midfield and defence. No goals were scored in the second 45 minutes but there was still some wonderful, attractive football exhibited by Ernesto Valvede’s slick Espanyol side. The first clear chance of the half fell to Villarreal though when their best player of the night Guissepe Rossi hit the frame of the goal from a free kick after 70 minutes. Even if the ball had gone in, it would’ve been eventually turned out to be mere consolation and Villarreal did get a consolation in the end.
That consolation was not of sealing a goal but of not conceding another. Defensive ping-pong in the Villarreal penalty area in the 77th minute created panic among the Villarreal players with the ball cleared from inside the goal line. Fortunately for Pellegrini’s beleaguered side, the officials failed to spot that the ball had just crossed the line before Fabricio Fuentes cleared it and so the Yellow Submarine returned from their trip to the Montjuic with 3 holes instead of 4.
Espanyol continued their attacking mode of football in this match, moved the ball around with pace, displayed fluidity, width and creativity and were defensively intact even in the absence of the injured Daniel Jarque. Valverde’s tactic of employing 7 men (including the goalkeeper) to provide the shield and the remaining 4 to launch attacks reaped dividends once again as Manuel Pellegrini’s team failed to impose themselves on the match and lacked a Plan B. Midfielder Ivan de la Pena was a key figure in all the Espanyol moves in the match and his return from injury has certainly added another dimension to this exciting Espanyol side.
As far as Villarreal are concerned, Rossi tried to threaten Espanyol’s goal but he stumbled across too many bodies in blue-and-white and couldn’t decipher much help from his team mates. Chilean youngster Matias Fernandez did work hard on Villarreal’s right but the man who has been the source of inspiration and leadership for the club in the post-Juan Roman Riquelme epoch, Robert Pires, was cruelly subdued. He rarely had the ball and his passes were hardly dangerous enough to ruffle Espanyol’s feathers.
At the moment Espanyol are on a high. For long the Periquitos had suffered the ignominy of stuttering in the lower reaches of the Spanish first division. But this time it’s different The possibility of Espanyol playing in the UEFA Champions League is rapidly turning into a probability and Ernesto Valverde and his enterprising team deserve the applause and attention that they are getting.