Real Madrid and FC Barcelona would be hammer and nail at each other as always for La Liga title, Atletico Madrid should possibly be there barging onto the duopoly, Villarreal, Real Zaragoza and Sevilla FC would be trying to smother each other for the remaining UEFA Champions League place.
That was the popular conviction at the start of the season and although a sly glance at the league table confirms that such predictions haven’t been wholly wrong, there’s one piece of the jigsaw that refuses to fit. And that piece is a certain Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona, the other Catalan club long submerged in the shadows of their more illustrious, more popular, more acclaimed FC Barcelona.
It’s as much astonishing as admiring to observe Espanyol lying third in La Liga with 33 points from 17 matches, just 1 point and 1 place behind Barca as the Spanish championship wraps up for Christmas and New year celebrations. Catalonia’s forgotten, underrated and almost non-existing club (even to the Catalans themselves) has been a revelation so far and boy, don’t they love it!
For long, or rather forever, Barcelona with their now ubiquitous motto mes que un club (more than a club) has been the Catalan flagbearer. They’ve been the sole representatives of Catalonia and everything the region strives for. It’s been Barca and only Barca always who have been the single most outlet of expression for the Catalans, who’ve fostered this sometimes amusing notion that it is through Barcelona that they can voice their urge for more autonomy, and as some would say full freedom, Barca is the Catalan flag and emblem.
And how this universally accepted norm has hit Espanyol! The Periquitos have hardly featured in the Catalan scenario and even in Barceona have been treated like they don’t even exist. Espnayol are perceived pretty much un-Catalan not because a small fragment of their fans cling onto Spanish identity, but because Catalonia has a bigger cub in Barcelona to look up to. Even if Espanyol’s name has been in Catalan for the last 12 years. Even if their captain was born in Santa Coloma de Gramanet and has been a perennial figure for the club. Even if Espanyol have been playing more Catalans than Barca do.
Like a clichéd seemingly unending wait for a London bus and then a train of them comes knocking at your door, Espanyol’s time has arrived. They are already one foot out of their big brother’s shadow and if anything, the atmosphere is so buoyant these days for that there’s are a remote suggestion that they might even outdo Barca in the league this season. Last season Espanyol reached the UEFA Cup final last season and lost only on penalties to Sevilla and destroyed Barca with the fuck of the century; and after emerging as the better side in this season’s El derbi barcelonés, confidence and pride at their peak.
Not only that but relief too—a distinct, inflated relief that this season at least Espanyol are not going to suffer the ignominy of partying with those La Liga clubs who escape relegation by the skin of their teeth at the end of the season. Even in La Liga, where a side finishing second in one season can drop down to 15th in the very next season, where a aside finishing in the top four one season can fall to 16th in the next year, Espanyol’s rise has been spectacular and jaw-dropping.
Espanyol have finished in the top half of the table only once in the last 5 seasons and that was in the crazy 2004-2005. The other seasons have been littered with relegation dogfights and the employment of every possible means to abscond the shame of dropping into the second division, even a last day survival heroics in 2005-2006. This season the turnaround has been as much dramatic as welcoming and throw in the Catalan identity element in to the basket, and it become truly relishing.
At the heart of this stupendous turnaround is a certain 43-year old Ernesto Velverde who in spite of his low profile has weaved wonders at the Montjuic. Espanyol have played with fluidity and creativity has surged from the midfield. Unlike in most of the previous years, they’ve discovered consistency. Indeed, Espanyol are on an unbeaten run of 13 La Liga matches, a run which has propelled them to third in the table, a string of matches that include a 5-goal thriller at Sevilla, a 2-1 farewell of Valencia at Mestalla, a 2-1 defeat of champions Real Madrid at home and a 2-1 win at ridiculously entertaining Atletico Madrid to wrap up the proceedings for the winter hibernation. They demonstrated an admirable fighting spirit when they crippled Barca in the second half at home, galloping back to the game to earn a brilliant 1-1- draw.
What Valvede has constructed at Espanyol is a physically strong side immensely organized, revolving around Raul Tamudo and playing the ball around with a rhythm pleasing to the eye. Espanyol’s Captain Fantastic Tamudinho has been the central thread in this Espanyol slick team and led by example as he did when he executed a delicate chip over Real Madrid custodian Iker Casillas. He’s the club’s all time leading goal scorer and heads the record this season too with 8 league goals so far. At 30. he has even assured himself a Euro 2008 berth in the Spain national squad.
Albert Riera might have just 3 goals against his name so far this season but after an early career with Real Mallorca and Manchester City, the 23-year old right winger is coming to the ore this time around. His 5 assists and some breathtaking exhibition stiff on Espanyol’s right earned him even a debut for Span which he duly celebrated with the goal of the against Denmark.
Certain other factors have clicked as well. While Espnayol’s defense has been exposing cracks on the travel where they have conceded 15 goals in 9 matches, the likes of Daniel Jarque have been rocks at the back when Espanyol have played at the Montjuic, miserly letting in just 4 goals in 8 matches. Little Buddha Ivan de la Pena has missed games because of niggling injuries but others have covered up for him.
Espanyol are on a high and the cherry of the top of the cake is Barca’s crisis. True, Barca are 1 point ahead of them in second and have more established and famous names but they are 7 points off the top and Espanyol are loving it. Barca’s withering has coincided with Espanyol’s escalation and this is a collector’s item, something that ought to be framed and hung up on the gallery.
Yet Espanyol are not safe, not entirely. The January transfer season is on the doorsteps and speculation is mounting on certain vital players. Tamudo would certainly not move away from the Montjuic until December 2008 when the club would move to a new home just south of Barcelona and Tamudo would go with them there, but big clubs are already lining up for the Rieras and Luis Garcias. For a club with a budget as modest as Espanyol’s, selling big players is an inevitability. Velverde is obviously playing down any sell out but in his heart of hearts the former Athletic de Bilbao manager must be fearing an exodus at the end of the season at least.
But if Espanyol can hold onto the players for the second half of the season, the Periquitos could just be playing in the UEFA Champions League next season.