x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Espanyol moving out of the shadows

While the spotlight was on Barcelona, the few fans of the city's second club have seen their side quietly rise to fourth in the Primera Liga after 13 games.

The football world is talking about events in Barcelona last night, but few have noticed what has been happening at Espanyol, the city's second club.

The 28,000 regulars who watch the Blanquiazules (blue and whites), resigned to being also-rans in their home town, have seen their side quietly rise to fourth in the Primera Liga after 13 games.

Espanyol are used to being patronised by the media and struggling for oxygen under Barca. Espanyol cannot and do not try to compete with the world famous Barca juggernaut, yet while their trophy cabinet holds just three domestic cups won in 1929, 1940 and 2000, Espanyol are sixth in the all-time Spanish league table behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and Atletico Madrid.

On Saturday night, they beat the latter 3-2.

Consistently good home form, rather than their exploits on their travels, is responsible for their lofty league position.

They have won all six of their home games - a better home record than Barca - and, having conceded just two goals, the joint best defence in the league at home.

Critics have pointed out that the six vanquished teams are in the bottom half of the table and their league position is a quirk of statistics, but they were silenced after Espanyol went to Atletico and won in one of the most exciting games of the season so far in Spain.

Twice Espanyol took the lead, twice Atletico equalised, before a stunning volley from Pablo Osvaldo, the Argentine striker, settled the game in the 77th minute.

What made Espanyol more impressive was that they went for the win. Their commitment to attacking football under Mauricio Pochettino, their 37-year-old coach, has attracted bigger clubs towards some of their most promising names.

Espanyol boast a youth system that is every bit as impressive as Barca's, though on a smaller scale. Their side contain several locally born young players who have progressed through the ranks - Espanyol are as proud to be Catalan as their neighbours.

Jordi Amat,18, and Victor Ruiz, 21, the central defenders, are both Catalan. Other locals include Didac, 21, and Javi Marquez, 24, both of whom came through the youth system.

Espanyol have other reasons to turn to youth: money. Some of their first-team players are receiving just €3,000 (Dh14,500) a month - with a promise that they will get more at the end of the season. Such promises are normal in Spain.

Pochettino is a former Espanyol defender with 275 league games for the club in two spells. England fans might remember him as the Argentina defender who brought down Michael Owen to earn England a penalty and the game's only goal in the 2002 World Cup finals.

The coach mixes youth with shrewdly purchased imports such as Osvaldo, the top scorer, while Carlos Kameni, the Cameroon international goalkeeper, is enjoying his seventh season in the first team.

Espanyol won three and drew one of their league games in November to push them above Sevilla and Atletico and they are a team growing in confidence.

The players are happy in their new home after 15 years playing in the Olympic Stadium, which was too big for Espanyol.

They moved to a new stadium in 2009, but it was overshadowed by the death of Dani Jarque, their captain, in pre-season from a suspected heart defect.

This year has been better. Espanyol are flying. Barca's Andres Iniesta kept the memory of Jarque alive when he scored the winning goal for Spain in the World Cup final and revealed a message dedicated to the memory of Jarque.

There is no love lost between Barca and Espanyol, but fans found common ground and respect in Iniesta's gesture.

sports@thenational.ae