New-look Espanyol face a long season

Rubi during the match between RCD Espanyol and Valencia CF, corresponding to the week 2 of que spanish league, played at the RCDE Stadium, on 26th August, 2018, in Barcelona, Spain. -- (Photo by Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Rubi during the match between RCD Espanyol and Valencia CF, corresponding to the week 2 of que spanish league, played at the RCDE Stadium, on 26th August, 2018, in Barcelona, Spain. -- (Photo by Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images) /

Espanyol have made a bright start to life under new manager Rubi, but they face an uphill battle both on and off the pitch.

There is a rare sense of optimism about Espanyol after their strong start to the new season. The Barcelona outfit finished preseason with the best record of any Spanish side, winning all six of their games, and have continued their unbeaten start under new manager, Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia (better known as Rubi).

After an opening day draw away to Celta Vigo, Espanyol surprised everyone with a 2-0 win over Valencia at the RCDE Stadium on Sunday. It wasn’t just the result that would have surprised regular La Liga watchers; it was the manner in which Espanyol secured the result, with the Catalans controlling proceedings, constructing some nice attacking moves even after going 1-0 up.

The new approach instilled by Rubi so far will be refreshing for fans and neutrals alike, but Espanyol supporters have been hurt by optimism before, and Los Periquitos still faces a big job to not only prolong Espanyol’s 25-year stay in the top flight, but also to win back the trust of the fanbase. Just two seasons ago, the club were taken over by new Chineese owner, Chen Yansheng, who promised he would clear debts and invest in the squad. “Barcelona can have two powerful clubs,” he claimed during his inaugural press conference.

Quique Sanchez Flores was chosen as the club’s new manager, and at first it seemed the new owners would fulfill their promises. The Catalans came eighth, their highest finish in six years. Despite not selling too many of their key players, Espanyol failed to build on their squad that summer, mainly promoting B team players, and Sanchez’s conservative style hurt him in his second season.

The Blue and White scored just 36 goals in 38 games last season. Flores was sacked in April with the threat of relegation still looming with five games to go. Fans made their grievances known, attendances plummeted and the 40,500-seater RCDE stadium continued to look bare despite a late-season flourish. The Catalans finished last season with an average attendance just over 17,000, the lowest in a decade.

Fans suffered another disappointing transfer window this summer with the club owner ditching his promises and cashing in on some of the club’s high-profile assets at criminally low prices.

Gerard Moreno, Espanyol’s best player last season having scored 16 goals in the league in 2017-18, was sold to Villarreal for 20 million Euros, despite having a minimum release clause of 40 million. Aaron Martin had been Espanyol first choice left-back since making his senior debut in 2016. He was loaned out for an initial of 3 million with an option to buy for a measly 9 million once the loan deal expires. Martin’s release fee was set at 40 million at the start of the summer and Espanyol had previously rejected a 30 million approach for the player from Everton during the winter window last season.

Marc Navarro had made 36 appearances for the club since his debut in January before being sold to Watford for a lowly 2 million this summer, despite his 25 million release fee. Starting keeper Pau Lopez was also allowed to leave on a free to Real Betis. In their place, Espanyol have mostly promoted from within, the only marquee signing being Borja Iglesias, a forward who was prolific in Segunda division, but yet to prove his stock in the top flight.

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Even their manager, who had attracted so many plaudits for leading Huesca to promotion, was considered an underwhelming appointment, having suffered relegation with his previous three stints in La Liga.

Nearly 19,000 people saw Rubi’s home debut on Sunday, underlining the pessimism surrounding the club this season. Despite the good start to the campaign, Espanyol are still tipped to go down. A poor summer means the squad is thin on depth and notably weaker than their competitors, who have also enjoyed good starts to the season. However, early signs suggest it might not all be doom and gloom and, having beaten Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia across this calendar year already, there’s still some magic left in El Magico. They will need plenty of it this season.