Thievy Bifouma collected the ball inside the area and slammed past Diego Alves for his second goal in two substitute appearances – Espanyol were up and running. They’d waited eight games for their first win last season, but against Valencia in their first home match of this season, three goals brought them a first three points. Also the team’s first win of 2013-14, it was a performance Javier Aguirre labelled as: “the best game since becoming Coach of the club.”
The Mexican replaced Mauricio Pochettino last November with Espanyol bottom of La Liga, so it’s a sign of how far Los Pericos have come since then that there was a hint of disappointment around Cornella-El Prat that they could only follow up that win over Valencia with a goalless draw against Real Betis.
Heading into Week 1 of this campaign, there was very little being said about Espanyol following what, on the face of it, seemed a quiet summer. However, with the hindsight of their unbeaten start – they came from behind to draw 2-2 at Celta Vigo in their opening match – the subtle changes that did take place over the summer have clearly improved what ended last season as a settled, consistent side.
Pizzi, excellent at Deportivo last year, has arrived on loan from Benfica, but it is the returning duo of David Lopez and Thievy, who spent last season on loan at Huesca and Las Palmas respectively, which is proving the club’s best business.
Lopez, just 23, has the physique of a battering ram and, alongside Victor Sanchez, forms a midfield duo that, if they remain fit, should provide Espanyol with the tools to finish inside the top 10 – Aguirre hailed them as ‘superb’ after the Valencia win.
Behind them the partnership of Diego Colotto and Hector Moreno, which if not outstanding, is both established and dependable. Completing Aguirre’s back seven is Kiko Casilla, a rumoured Arsenal target, in between the sticks, with Javi Lopez and Juan Fuentes, a summer signing from Cordoba, as the full-backs.
Although their style is not as exciting nor attack minded as the recent success stories at Real Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano, it is not as negative as the system that propelled Levante into last season’s Europa League. Aguirre has created a happy medium, with familiarity and players knowing their roles proving the key aspects. Sergio Garcia and Christian Stuani’s functionalism is aided by the excitement added by Pizzi and Thievy and the experience of Simao Sabrosa, while the deadline day arrival of Gabriel Torje further enhances Aguirre’s options.
Losing Joan Verdu to Real Betis in the summer, the club’s main protagonist last season, looked a blow at the time, but initial signs suggest Aguirre has taken it in his stride. Ahead of deadline day, Thievy said: “If anyone else is to arrive, they will be one of the family.” And it’s those sort of values which could underline a successful season for Barcelona’s other club.