Thursday, February 22, 2024

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Espanyol Claim Another Unwanted Record

Espanyol Badge (via Wikipedia)


Espanyol are a club used to being overshadowed, although to be fair, their nearest rivals have had a habit of overshadowing the best teams in Europe for much of their history. Ultimately, when you are the 2nd best professional football team in Barcelona, it means that you have to get used to struggling for attention.



However, this does a disservice to Espanyol, after all there are only 3 teams who have ever spent more than the 84 seasons in La Liga than the Periquitos have (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao have never been relegated and sit on 88 seasons). Sadly, these statistics also mean that Espanyol already hold the long-standing, unwanted record of having competed in La Liga the longest without ever winning the title, or in fact being runners-up. The closest they've come is to finish in 3rd place on 4 occasions (1933, 1967, 1973 and most recently in 1987).



Last season Espanyol finished in 7th place, which was their highest final position since the 2004/05 season and delivered European football to the club for the 1st time since the 2006/07 campaign. Fast forward to this season and Espanyol negotiated the tricky group stage of the Europa League, only to eventually fall at the hurdle of the last 32 to Wolves. However, back in La Liga things have fallen apart for the Catalan team, after staring relegation in the face for much of what's transpired to be the last 11 months now, the inevitable was confirmed last week by a 1-0 defeat at the Nou Camp of all places. The club will now play in the Segunda División for the 1st time since the 1993/94 season.



In reality the problems started for Espanyol at the end of last season. Despite the aforementioned best league finish in nearly 15 years, plus a run to the Copa del Rey quarter-finals, their manager Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia (or Rubi) decided to quit his position after just 1 year. In a shocking development Rubi paid his resignation release clause and took over at Real Betis within hours of doing so. Although, as it turned out, this wasn't a good career move as Rubi was dismissed as Betis manager on June 21st following a run of just 2 league wins in 2020.



Mistakes were also made in the transfer market, namely the losing of 2 influential first-team players, Mario Hermoso and Borja Iglesias. The former had impressed at centre back and left back over the course of the previous 2 seasons, but last summer, with just a year left on his contract, the offer of €25 million+ and the lure of playing for Atletico Madrid was too much for either Espanyol or Hermaso respectively to resist. But it's the departure of Borja Iglesias that has been truly devastating. He only joined the club in July 2018, for just €10 million, following a breakthrough season on loan from Celta, at Real Zaragoza, when he scored 22 goals in the Segunda División.



It turned out to be an astute investment by Espanyol, as Iglesias was able to immediately reproduce his goal-scoring prowess from the 2nd tier of Spanish football to La Liga. In 2018/19 Iglesias scored 17 league goals, coming 7th in the overall standings and within 4 of Karim Benzema & Luis Suárez in 2nd (Messi was of course top of the charts, a full 15 goals ahead of his Real Madrid rival and Barcelona teammate!). To further contextualise the importance of Iglesias to Espanyol last season, he scored 20 goals in all competitions which was 15 more than anyone else in the squad.



All this obviously brought more attention onto the striker, and after starting this season with 3 goals in 3 appearances in the early stages of the Europa League, the inevitable happened and he was poached by a rival club. To make matters worse, the transfer came when Real Betis and their recently-departed manager, Rubi, came calling. They met the €28 million release clause that had been unwisely included within Iglesias' contract just over 1 year before, and suddenly the Espanyol attack had been catastrophically nullified.



Compounding the loss of such an influential player for Espanyol, was the lack of any proper planning or replacement. Iglesias was sold on August 14th, which left over 2 weeks for the club to scour the transfer market before the window in Spain closed again on September 2nd, and yet the only forward that arrived was the loan signing of Jonathan Calleri (from the Uruguayan team Deportivo Maldonado). Calleri did manage a hat-trick in the Europa League home win against Wolves, as they exited the competition, but in La Liga his return has been a paltry, solitary goal.



Fast forward to this year and the January transfer window and Espanyol were naturally beginning to panic, and so they rolled the dice and splashed out €20 million on Raúl de Tomás, who had only joined Benfica (for the same amount) 6 months earlier. Initially it looked as if Espanyol had secured another shrewd deal when Raúl scored in each of his 1st 5 appearances including 2 vital winners in La Liga, which so far amounts to 40% of all the games that they've won in the league all season! Alas this scoring run was halted by a minor injury and Raúl de Tomás has failed to hit the back of the net ever since.



As for the managerial situation, Espanyol started their 2019/20 season with David Gallego, who'd been with the club since 2013 and had since held positions as youth and reserve team coach, as well as being caretaker manager for the final month of the 2017/18 season when he led the team to 4 wins in 5 games. Regrettably, his 2nd spell in the hot seat did not turn out so well, and on October 7th the axe fell after the opening 7 league games had yielded 1 win, 2 draws and 4 losses. His managerial record actually produced a respectable win percentage of 43.75% by the time Gallego departed, but this was thanks to an unbeaten passage through the not-so-challenging Europa League qualifying rounds.



Next in charge came Pablo Machín, whose preceding job had been at Sevilla where he failed to make it through the 2018/19 campaign. His tenure lasted a similar length to Gallego, just 15 games in total, from early October to just before Christmas Day. With only 4 wins to his name, and Espanyol bottom of La Liga, the club made another desperate move to avert disaster. This led to the appointment of the former Barcelona centre-back Abelardo Fernández, who had built up his managerial reputation in recent years at both Sporting Gijon and Alavés. Unfortunately, Abelardo was equally unable to put a handbrake on the fall towards relegation, he managed to hang on to his job for 17 games (elongated by the lockdown that followed the COVID-19 outbreak) before he too was dismissed. Judging by his statistics Abelardo might have been a good fit for Espanyol if he had been put in place last summer, but in the circumstances that he was introduced to the club, 5 wins and 5 draws were not a prolific enough record to dig the team out of their hole in time.



This brings us up to date, with the former Espanyol player Francisco Rufete having been given the utterly thankless task of being the interim manager since June 27th. Given what has transpired up until this point, there's little surprise that Rufete has overseen 5 straight defeats so far. The latest of these came last weekend, with a 2-0 home loss to Eibar, and this was the moment that this Espanyol team wrote themselves into the history books. As a result of their 7th consecutive league defeat, the Periquitos cannot avoid ending this calamitous campaign at the foot of La Liga and therefore being the worst (statistical) incarnation of Espanyol that there's ever been.



The silver-lining to all this is that on the 4 occasions that Espanyol have experienced relegation before now, they've managed to ensure that they've achieved an immediate promotion back to La Liga. That being said, once this strange season finally ends this week, the club will have a matter of weeks to do everything possible to get their house in order to avoid an unprecedented period of exile from the top flight. What is certain is that whilst the team of blue and white are the overwhelming minnows of the Derbi Barceloní, they will crave the chance to lock horns again with their famous rivals as soon as they possibly can.


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