“Maybe I’m a masochist,” Abelardo Fernández had said and maybe that explains everything: it explains why they called and why he came; it might even explain why this could just work. That, at least, is the hope and at least there is hope now. The noise had just about died down, supporters heading home happy, when Espanyol’s new coach appeared, their third in half a season. It was almost midnight, cold outside, and his throat was raw but he was smiling. “You have a bad time of it, you suffer, but you enjoy it,” he admitted, “and I tell them to enjoy it too.” This time, they had. Espanyol are still the worst team in Spain, and by some way, but it’s a new year, a new them.
Before Saturday’s Catalan derby an I Will Survive remix boomed round Cornellà; by the end, some had started to believe they actually might. As the whistle went on a 2-2 draw, another song went round: “Yes, we can!” they chanted. Unable to beat Barcelona in the league in the 2010s, Espanyol had been unable to beat them at the start of 2020 too, but this wasn’t the same. Sometimes a draw feels like a victory. When they’re top and you’re bottom, when you’ve barely even drawn at home all season let alone actually won a game, you’ve blown a lead and you’re losing with two minutes left, is one of those times. When you’re desperate, searching for something, anything, to hold on to definitely is.
One-nil up through a David López header out of nothing, two superb moments from Luis Suárez, who has scored or assisted each of Barcelona’s last 10 goals and added one more of each here, had left Espanyol trailing again. “When that happens, you fear the team will collapse, but it wasn’t like that, quite the opposite,” Abelardo said. On the touchline, Matías Vargas and Wu Lei were warming up. Talking, too. “I’ll play you in,” Vargas said. Soon, both were on. And on 88 minutes, he did. The Chinese striker hit his shot low and hard across Neto by the far post to grab an equaliser. Running to the corner, teammates piled on. “We’ve lost two points,” Suárez said, standing pitchside at the end, as Espanyol’s players embraced, still applauding the fans. They had gained one.
“It’s only a point, but it’s a turning point,” Abelardo said.
It has to be. Espanyol ended last season qualifying for Europe for the first time in a decade but they ended 2019 facing relegation for the first time in quarter of a century. In the summer, they lost centre-back Mario Hermoso, centre-forward Borja Iglesias, and manager Rubi. They lost two more since: under David Gallego, they collected just five points from 24; under Pablo Machín, it was five from 30. Gallego stood accused of being too flexible – the players ran the place, did what they wanted – and Machín of being too rigid, wedded to wing-backs when he didn’t really have them or the authority to convince them. There were whistles from fans, chants for the board to resign, accusations that players were mercenaries – although that would at least mean they fought.
“I understand them,” Machín said, which was another way of saying he agreed. Espanyol’s manager complained that all he had were pipiolos, a weird word which sent everyone to Wikipedia: a 19th century Chilean liberal, young, naive, and unprepared. Defeated, too. He wanted “real blokes”, players who “feel their profession”, not pipiolos. Defeated at Leganés just before Christmas, what he got was the sack. Espanyol were bottom, five points from safety. Their record at home read: played nine, won none, lost seven. No one had been in a worse situation than this.
Well, almost no one.
Abelardo had, and he quite fancied doing so again. “Maybe I’m a masochist, but I like the challenge,” he said at his presentation. The situation was very, very bad, he admitted, an inescapable reality. But, he insisted, if he didn’t think there was some way out, he wouldn’t have accepted – and that was at least partly borne out by the fact that he, like Gus Poyet, had just turned down the job at fellow-strugglers Leganés, which was instead taken by Javier Aguirre. He also thinks it was harder at Sporting Gijón, the club in “ruins” where he led a revolution, winning promotion and avoiding relegation, and at Alavés, where he performed a miracle.
The day Abelardo took over at Alavés, he was their fourth manager of the season. At his presentation he insisted they would survive, but few truly believed him. After 13 games, they were six points from safety. Within two games, he had won as many times as the previous three managers put together. They eventually finished 18 points clear of relegation. He found enjoyment in suffering, release, and helped his players find it too. Now, at Espanyol, he had been called to do the same again. “When you’ve only got 10 of 54 points, players lose confidence in their ability; they stop daring to do things; we have to change that,” he said. “Bit by bit, day by day, session by session, game by game.”
He didn’t have long to prepare for the game against Barcelona, the team where he had played, but something shifted. The system for a start: 4-4-2, tighter, more physical; short, simple messages. “He told us to be strong, compact, to press, don’t let them think, closed space,” Javi López said. “With Abelardo we’re happy,” Vargas added.
He was happy too. “I missed this; I feel lucky to be able to do what I love,” the manager said. “You have a bad time of it. Just look at me: my voice is rough. It’s not easy: it’s not like basketball where you have time-outs or five players near you. You shout, and they can’t hear you amid all the noise, with all the people there. But I enjoy it and I tell them to enjoy it too. I said to them before the game: I would have paid to pull on this shirt and listen to the fans, to play in an atmosphere and a game like this. You have to enjoy it or you go out there and can’t perform, you suffer a mental block. When you compete, you enjoy it more.” Moribund for months, on Saturday, they did, belief returning.
“New year, new manager,” López said. It could yet be that gym
membership, long forgotten by the spring. The opening goal had come
from virtually nothing, Suárez had two good chances for 3-1, and Espanyol
were offered a way back in with a red card to Frenkie de Jong remains
dramatic. Bottom of the table, four points from safety and with Leganés
fast improving. They have just 11 points at the halfway stage. They
have won just twice and probably need to win nine more times in 19.
“For ever swimming against the tide,” ran the banner unfurled before the
game and this is more like a tsunami. No team has ever survived on fewer
than 12 points at halfway. Only four have ever ended the first half of
the season without a home win and none of them came close to survival. It
is hard still, they know, almost impossible, and suffering lies ahead. But
that’s Abelardo’s thing and on Saturday, Espanyol felt a little closer.
“This is the turning point,” Vargas said, although he also warned: “It was [supposed to be on] the day we beat Betis too.” The headline on the front of the Espanyol-supporting daily La Grada cheered: “Ready for the revival.” And the goalscorer was beaming. “This is a great point. You could see in the dressing room, that everyone has more confidence and believes the run will change in the new year,” Wu said before leaving Cornellá, pausing for group of Chinese fans outside.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be where we are,” López said. “This is a new start, I am convinced, absolutely certain. We have to give the best of us, think only of football, be aware that we represent a historic club. All I can say to the fans is: sorry, thanks, and we’ll get out of this. People might say I’m mad, but we’re going to survive.”
• “Courtois is the best in the world,” Zinedine Zidane said after he had saved Real Madrid three times against Getafe. “Oblak is the best goalkeeper in the world,” Diego Simeone said after he had saved Atlético with an astonishing save in the last minute against Levante.” Ernesto Valverde didn’t say anything this time, at least not on this debate: Ter Stegen wasn’t playing against Espanyol.
• “The worst La Liga … or the best” ran the headline in El Mundo. The season reaches the halfway stage, when everyone has played everyone once, and Barcelona are “winter champions” on the lowest points total any winter champion has had and having picked up only half of their points on the road. Madrid have not entirely convinced but are level with them. And the worst Atlético under Simeone are only five points behind. It’s more competitive, but the question they’re asking is: why?
• Whoever invented that line about easy as taking sweets from a child has never been on a Kings parade in Spain. Yep, it was Reyes, the event so important Spain’s footballers took a two-hour break on Sunday and Marca just couldn’t help pouring on the puns. Oddly, no one made much of E Royal getting Betis’s equaliser against Alavés. Or Santi Clause, despite Santi Mina scoring against Osasuna and Mara declaring Santi Cazorla a “gift” after he got the winner as Villarreal added Real Sociedad to a run that has also seen them beat Sevilla and Getafe in the last three league games, suggesting that maybe Europe isn’t beyond them.