The Press conference had been called for Thursday evening, barely an hour before Spain played the Republic of Ireland in their second group game of the European championships.
For a club that has become accustomed to losing key players in recent times, this seemed the perfect opportunity for Espanyol to bury bad news. Even more drastic than a star player’s departure, they were about to lose their Coach, Mauricio Pochettino.
Recently promoted Serie A side Sampdoria had met the €1.5m asking price in his contract and were willing to multiply the Argentine’s current salary, with an enticing offer that promised to build a three-year project around his coaching. However, to the surprise of many in the Catalan capital, he turned the Italians down.
The reason, as Pochettino said himself, was simple. The man who played for Los Periquitos for eight years over two spells has the club firmly engrained in his heart.
However, the question now raised is how far can he realistically take a young squad on an ever reducing budget?
When he was appointed in the winter of 2008-09 there was only one goal – survival. With 10 games to go it seemed like a lost cause, Espanyol were bottom with just 22 points. Pochettino, though, wouldn’t give up and sought divine inspiration. He hiked up the Catalan hills to seek the Virgin of Montserrat’s help. Whatever the reason, the plea certainly worked as his team stormed through the last 10 matches winning 25 points in the process and finishing 10th.
Yet, in the intervening three years there has been a frustrating lack of progress. In 2009-10 they finished 11th, in 2010-11 eighth, but closer to the relegation zone than Atletico Madrid in seventh, and this year despite being as high as sixth with nine games to go, they ended the season lower than ever in 14th.
Most Coaches in Spain would find their position under threat by such stagnation, but there is widespread recognition of how well Pochettino has done just to keep Espanyol on an even keel.
Pochettino has made a happy habit of improving players through a combination of technical coaching and excellent man management. The problem with that success however is that those players become valuable commodities that the club has been only too willing to cash in on.
Last summer Pablo Osvaldo was sold on at a handsome profit to Roma for €17.5m as was Jose Maria Callejon for €5.5m to Real Madrid, from where he had come for nothing just three years prior.
Six months previous to that duo’s departure, in January 2011 with Espanyol handily situated in fifth, their chances of European qualification were effectively sold off by the board as they cashed in on defenders Didac Vila and Victor Ruiz.
Pochettino has only been handed a fraction of the money he has brought in. Instead he has used the club’s academy to good effect, blooding the likes of Kiko Casilla, Christian Gomez, Raul Rodriguez, Thievy Bifouma and Alvaro Vasquez.
The worry for Espanyol fans, though, is that trend shows no sign of stopping. Only last week chief executive Joan Collet insisted there ‘was no player in the squad not available for transfer’ and that they couldn’t afford to sign anyone even costing in the region of €3m.
Even more worryingly a percentage of the rights in three players, thought to be Alvaro, Hector Moreno and Javi Marquez, were sold to an English investment company just to be able to pay the bills towards the end of the campaign.
At the very least, Marquez will leave this summer for a cut-price deal with his contract set to expire next year, whilst there are plenty of suitors lining up to swoop in on Alvaro.
Three years ago Pochettino went seeking miracles in Montserrat, but as things stand he’s going to have to produce a few of his own to keep Espanyol competitive in the coming season.