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FC Barcelona's Next La Liga Opponent: Jornada 14 – RCD Espanyol Scouting Report & Key Battles

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Hello and welcome to the scouting report and key battles weekly column! This week’s edition of Ahmed’s analysis will take a closer look at Espanyol’s transfers, form, strategy, a few things you (probably) didn't know about the club, predicted line-up and key battles.

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Espanyol. What comes to mind when thinking of the word? Español? Neighbours? Persistent? Little brother? Derby? Catalunya? Estadi Cornellà-El Prat?  Dani Jarque, Mauricio Pochettino or Raul Tamudo?

How about FC Barcelona?

There is no right or wrong answer.

Similarly to how sport and politics combine, one thing is for sure, RCD Espanyol is an integral part of Catalunya and its fate is forever intertwined with that of FC Barcelona. The relationship of two opposites, some may say; the relationship of two opposites attracting, others will say. One ‘rich', the other ‘poor'. One was founded in 1899, the other in 1900. One founded by a Swiss, the other by a group of Spaniards (mostly Catalan). Both heavily in debt. The two gradually swapped roles with FC Barcelona being the bigger proponents of nationalism, with Espanyol playing a lesser role. This is evidenced by the derby formerly being known as a clash between "Catalanism v Spanishness." Yet this has in recent years evaporated into a blurry line with football and Catalan Independence taking centre stage. Indeed, Espanyol even translated their official hymn from Spanish to Catalan. More similarities than differences.

A rivalry that's as deep-rooted as it is fascinating.  Two teams ‘worlds apart', yet only streets apart. Love and hatred both involved. Do read the article written by Rafel Bagot for Barcelona Metropolitan titled: "The Strength of a Feeling", to get a greater sense of what it is to be a ‘Perico' (Parakeet). It's informative. Espanyol's current president, Joan Collet, sums up Espanyol's situation rather nicely in it with: "We have to recognise that Espanyol exists side by side with a very big club, a world monster, FC Barcelona, and it's not easy to co-exist. The rivalry that is present in schools, on the street and at work, is naturally difficult. Quite difficult. But, well, we're proud of our team and I understand that lots of aficionados and tourists that come here have more feelings for Barcelona, because they're the team that wins." The Parakeet side-by-side with a world monster - A sight to behold. Only on Planet Earth.

For those interested in further reading, the first article I would recommend is a lovely piece by Rob Hughes for The New York Times on the special connection between Andres Iniesta, Dani Jarque and Espanyol. Respect. Gold dust doesn't do it. The following is a short excerpt:

"Cast your mind back to that South Africa night last summer. You might recall Iniesta's first impulse after he scored that goal. He ran toward the crowd, tearing off his shirt and revealing an undershirt with the inscription: "Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros."

It translates to "Dani Jarque, always with us."

"The personal friendship between Iniesta and Jarque deepened as they grew up together in the Spanish youth teams. Their bond was stronger than any division between the two clubs of the same city."

Next is something involving former manager Javier Aguirre. What a job he did there, taking them from odds-on-relegation candidates (some may say certainties) to mid-table obscurities. He is an honest manager who is known for working in difficult circumstances and succeeding, the vast majority of the time. The article is by Sam Borden with Pere Bosch contributing in reporting for The New York Times titled: "The Invisible Team: Barcelona's Little Brother, Espanyol."

Here is a taster from the article:

"Sixty million euros for one player? We paid 750,000 for eight players," Aguirre said. "We can't compete with that. We have to find players under the stones."

"Look at this," he said last week, disgustedly jabbing at a paper on his desk. "Page 40. Page 40!" He sat back in his chair. He held up his hands. And then he sighed. "On Page 39 there is a story about Barcelona's youth team," he said. "We even come after that."

In addition, check out this article by Sid Lowe for The Guardian titled: "Where will Barcelona and Espanyol play if Catalonia gets independence?" for an in-depth analysis of the situation. Also, there is this fascinating article by Steve Menary for World Soccer tackling the same issue from a different angle.

Transfers

Espanyol's budget has been really tight. Indeed, they haven't brought in or let go of many players. Aside from the fact that the expected amount of money wasn't really spent, I think Espanyol fans will be more pleased than displeased with the transfer window. Yes, they have sold arguably their best and most promising player, yet they have replaced him with class and a vast amount of experience.

They have invested in Paco Montañés from Real Zaragoza for £968,000 as well as Alvaro Gonzalez from the same club for the same transfer fee and Anaitz Arbilla from Espanyol for £880,000.

Espanyol have also made a string of very good signings in Salva Sevilla from Real Betis, Felipe Caicedo from Al-Jazira and Jose Alberto Canas from Swansea.

Something of a hidden gem in Lucas Vázquez has been loaned from Real Madrid Castilla whilst Pau López was promoted from Espanyol's B team.

Espanyol's biggest departure is undoubtedly David Lopez leaving to Napoli for £4,66 milllion, it is also worth mentioning that Joan Capdevila left to NorthEast United for free. Thievy Bifouma, Christian Alfonso, Sergio Tejera and Cristian Gomez have all left on loan for the season.

Form

Espanyol's form has been poor this season. It's worse than inconsistent. Three home wins over Getafe, a very poor away outfit in Real Sociedad and Levante doesn't paper over the cracks. This makes it all the more astonishing that they are sitting nice and pretty at 11th in La Liga. Having said that, they are only 4 points away from the relegation zone, so it's not all nice and rosy. Still, it goes to show just how vital a win is this season. 5 draws and 5 losses doesn't bode well ahead of a visit to your fiercest and in-form rivals. 

Strategy

Espanyol are very strong at creating chances using through balls, with the assists being spread throughout the team.  Espanyol love attacking from the flanks, especially the right-side with Real Madrid's Castilla player (Vasquez) usually starring. They are therefore very adept at creating chances through individual skill, coming back from losing positions and protecting a lead.

Espanyol also have weaknesses. They struggle to keep possession of the ball with an average possession of 47% and are poor at finishing counter-attacks; indeed, they haven't finished a single one in La Liga this season. Further to this, they are poor at defending counter-attacks, set-pieces and long shots. They are therefore, poor at defending full stop. There is also room for improvement with aerial duels. It really tells you everything when a team is listed to have more weaknesses than it does strengths. In terms of style of play, Espanyol like to play with long balls, attempt crosses and through balls often and are aggressive, as their 36 yellow cards (and 1 red) tally for the season so far attests (stats courtesy of WhoScored).

Espanyol's manager, Sergio, has been flirting between a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and other variations all seasons. From the outside looking in, it does seem that he's not quite sure on what his best tactics or formation is. This deduction is highlighted by the fact that his starting line-up is not as consistent as some of the other teams in the league. I personally think that a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 (or a variation) are the only viable options in a pitch as the Camp Nou's. A 4-4-2 would simply leave Espanyol's midfield too stretched and exposed, whilst the two strikers would be rather isolated up front.

A Few Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About RCD Espanyol

The Libero Guide writes: "Barcelona's second club Espanyol are enjoying a modest revival. Under recent club president Daniel Sánchez Llibre, Los Periquitos (‘The Parakeets') won two Spanish cups and reached the UEFA Cup final in 2007, losing to Sevilla on penalties. During that time, the club also moved to their new Estadi Cornellà-El Prat after an enforced stay at the soulless Olympic Stadium high on Montjuïc.

Before all this, Espanyol were Español, formed in 1900, the first with Spanish-only founders, students from the university in Sarrià, site of the club's beloved old stadium. Here, a plaque honoured all-time club hero goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, who starred in the club's pre-war cup win over Real Madrid. ‘El Divino' kept goal here for more than a decade.

Six years after it hosted Italy's famous 3-2 win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, the Sarrià saw Español's 3-0 trouncing of Bayer Leverkusen in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Final. Almost inevitably in a history of misfortune and failure, The Parakeets went on to lose 3-0 in Germany, where the trophy ended up after a penalty shoot-out. Within a decade, the Sarria was sold and knocked down. Espanyol were forced to use the Catalan version of their name.

Fans made the trek up to Montjuïc to see the likes the Iván de la Peña, Walter Pandiani and the prolific Raúl Tamudo. All three featured in the run to the UEFA Cup Final in 2007, though Pandiani was the only Espanyol player to convert his penalty in the shoot-out against Sevilla in Glasgow.

Two years later, popular captain and centre-back Dani Jarque collapsed and died during pre-season training. Espanyol had only just moved into their new stadium, beating Liverpool 3-0 in the inaugural match.

As coach, ex-player Mauricio Pochettino gave Espanyol relative stability, though it took Javier Aguirre to rescue the club from potential relegation after the Argentine left for Southampton."

Predicted Line-up

I think Sergio might stick with the same team and formation that beat Levante last week. Kiko Casilla will start in goal. The rest of the back five is also pretty much set in stone. Javi Lopez (or Anaitz Arbilla if Lopez is unfit to start) will start on the right, Diego Colotto and Eric Bertrand (or Alvaro Gonzalez) as the centre-backs with Juan Rafael Fuentes as the left-back.

I expect Jose Alberto Canas to start alongside Victor Sanchez in central midfield. There is far less certainty among the other positions. It's a bit of a guessing game, really. Christian Stuani may play on the right if he recovers from a virus, with the exciting Lucas Vazquez possibly to bother Dani Alves on the left. Another option is Lucas Vazquez on the right and Sevilla on the left as was the case against Levante.

The striker positions are between Stuani, Sergio Garcia and Felipe Caceido. I think Stuani may start elsewhere (if he does indeed start) with Garcia starting up top with Caicedo if a 4-4-2 is preferred.

Possible XI (4-4-2): Casilla; Arbilla, Bertrand, Colotto, Fuentes; Vazquez, Canas, Sanchez, Sevilla; Caicedo, Garcia

Key Battles

With the fact that team battles are more pertinent, this week's report will focus on team battles.

Ability to break down v A compact defence: This is the battle which is usually key in this sort of matches. The attack usually either scores an early goal and then a few more, or does the opposite and struggles to even score one. There is no doubt that Barcelona will attack in numbers and it is presumed that Espanyol will attempt to defend as well as they can. Espanyol will likely struggle considering Barcelona will be eager to get it right after last week's relatively disappointing display at the Mestalla.

High defensive line v Counter-attack: Espanyol's counter-attack is nowhere near as good as the likes of Valencia, Sevilla, Almeria or Celta Vigo, but they will know that they will get at least one very good chance against Barcelona. This is because Barcelona have made a habit of making individual errors a few times in most games. Barcelona's high defensive line will therefore need to be fully focused at all times in order to keep another clean-sheet.

Set-pieces v Set-pieces: How will the two teams fare in set-pieces? Espanyol and Barcelona are not the best at attacking set pieces having only scored 1 and 3 respectively. On top of that, they are both poor at defending them too.

Complacency v Hunger: If Barcelona are complacent or simply not up to it then they will struggle, but considering the form of the respective teams as well as the fact that it's a derby, Barcelona should be up for it. Yet this aspect can't be ruled out, especially with one eye on Wednesday (PSG).

Final Thoughts

Espanyol have lost the last five against Barcelona. On top of that, they haven't won against Barcelona since 2009. It's a derby and it should be a tough and passionate affair, yet I expect Barcelona to win comfortably. A 3-0 or 4-0 win seems likely. I think 4-0 should do it, especially if Sergio decides to start with a 4-4-2 formation.

I am writing an article on La Masia which should be completed and published on Monday, so watch out for that one.

There is a lot to respect about Espanyol, not least their fans. I therefore wish them the best of luck for the rest of the season.

Thank you for reading, take care and goodbye until next time!