Football Features

“A man allergic to joyous success” – Five Things Learned as excellent Espanyol hold Barcelona

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:32, 4 January 2020

In a madcap night of football, Barcelona drew 2-2 with bottom-placed Espanyol in the derbi barceloní.

The draw got new manager Abelardo’s reign off to a great start as Barcelona missed a chance to go two points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the table again. What did we learn?

1. Suárez The Killer

Luis Suárez was the best no. 9 in the world for the vast majority of the previous decade. The Uruguayan began it terrorising the Eredivisie with Ajax, then moved on to terrorising the Premier League with Liverpool, and has spent the last six years dominating La Liga with Barcelona. But Father Time comes for everyone, and Suárez has been no exception.

Except Suárez’s decline has been such a mixed one. His technique on the ball hasn’t declined, only his ability to physically compete. What this means is that he often has games where he does little or nothing, perhaps even looking poor, before exploding to life with moments of technical genius that can win Barcelona games. That is exactly what happened against Espanyol.

The Uruguayan was basically a non-entity in the first-half. He helped only Espanyol with his frustrating play. Then in the second half he burst to life, scoring Barça’s equaliser with a beautifully-timed run and neat finish at the near-post. Then nine minutes later he picked the ball up in the box, slipped to the side of a defender and then dug out a miraculous cross with the outside of his right-foot, pinging the ball across the box where Arturo Vidal showed up thump the Blaugrana into the lead.

Of the last 10 goals Barcelona have scored in La Liga, Luis Suárez has either scored or assisted each and every one. The Uruguayan has hit a rich vein of form and the baffling nature of his decline is such that even when he’s not playing well you know god damn well he can kill you with a single swing of his boot.

2. Wu Lei makes his mark

Wu Lei signed for Espanyol at the start of last season and people questioned the footballing worth of the deal. Many accused Espanyol of simply playing up to the Chinese market, even though Wu Lei is the greatest goalscorer in the history of the Chinese Super League.

Unfortunately for Wu Lei, he’s not set La Liga alight. Coming into today’s game he had scored just four goals in 31 La Liga games and has been mostly used off the bench to little effect. However tonight when he came on, he was given two chances to make a massive name for himself thanks to his intelligent movement into space.

Soon after coming on he drifted away from Barcelona’s defenders to connect sweetly with a header, but he planted it straight down Neto’s throat. For a while he would have cursed himself, but life always gives you another chance.

When Monito Vargas slide a delicious pass in behind the Blaugrana backline, Wu Lei darted into an ocean of space behind Clement Lenglet and there, 1v1 against Neto, he unerringly guided the ball low and firmly into the far corner of the net to tie the game up. A historic goal for Espanyol and for Wu Lei too, who will hope to use that to springboard onto greatness in La Liga.

3. Ivan Rakitic is Dewey Finn

In the opening scene from School of Rock, there’s a rock band playing. Everyone is tightly in sync and the song is motoring along in rhythm. Then Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black) breaks into a baffling and ill-placed guitar solo, much to the annoyance of his band-mates and the audience. Finn is clearly a talented musician, but he is a terrible fit with the rest of his band.

This is basically Ivan Rakitic playing for Barcelona.

When the Croat first appeared for the Blaugrana back in 2014, he was a much-needed balm. A bit of vertical energy (in both directions) that the side sorely needed. He was never a complex three-dimensional player, but the side didn’t want him to be. That was six years ago.

Now the side very much needs a midfield full of complex three-dimensional players to function – to be harmonious – meanwhile Rakitic there letting rip with a solo that is completely absurd and doing nothing but getting on everyone’s nerves. He was atrocious against Espanyol and it wasn’t a surprise that he got hooked at half-time and even less of one that the Blaugrana improved massively in his absence.

There’s been so many rumours about Arturo Vidal’s potential exit but this game proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that if a veteran midfielder should be leaving Barcelona in January then that man is Ivan Rakitic, the Dewey Finn of the Camp Nou.

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4. Abelardo 2020

It’s clear that Espanyol have been terrible so far this season, coming into 2020 rock bottom of La Liga without a win in the league since late October. October. They have been simply diabolical, but under new coach Abelardo they showed something against their arch-rivals Barcelona that will fill their fans with so much confidence.

You’d always expect Espanyol to try hard against Barça, they are rivals after all, but to put in a display that combined effort and intelligence? That saw Espanyol defend rigidly and counter-attack with precision? That saw them undone only by some moments of magic from two of division’s greatest ever players in Leo Messi and Luis Suárez? That is phenomenal, and shows that whilst the point hasn’t lifted them off the bottom but it gives them a platform to fight their way to survival this season and greater things in the rest of this year.

5. Ernesto Valverde is his own worst enemy

Barcelona’s beleaguered manager honestly cannot get out of his own way. The Spanish tactician picked a horrible midfield against Espanyol and predictably saw his side get hammered. But even when he rectified that by subbing Arturo Vidal on and the Chilean alongside Luis Suárez helping to change the momentum of the game (despite being Barcelona’s answer to a question no one asked) he still found a way to mess it all up.

Sure, Valverde couldn’t really help Frenkie de Jong’s sending off. That was just a bit of naivete from a young player who panicked. But his reaction to the sub made absolutely no sense, even from the perspective of a conservative coach like Valverde.

Sure, the brave thing for Barça to do after the red would have been to sub on Ansu Fati for Luis Suárez and absolutely rinse Espanyol at the back with Ansu’s pace as they pushed up to try and equalise. That would have been proactive and probably very effective.

But Valverde is Valverde, a pragmatist, so of course he brought Nelson Semedo on and pushed Sergi Roberto into midfield. But alright, you can work with that. Semedo on for Suárez and break with Messi and Griezmann. That combination would have had enough energy to cover defensively, with just Messi left in attack alone as Espanyol poured forward.

But no, Semedo came on for Griezmann. The only Barcelona forward younger than 30 and by far the best defender of the three. This was a nonsensical decision even if Suárez was fully fit but the Uruguayan was absolutely exhausted after a Herculean effort to drag Barcelona into the lead. And sure enough, all this did was allow Espanyol to flood forward into attack, gain more and more confidence and then eventually equalise.

Here it’s worth noting that Wu Lei scored his goal from the left-side of Barcelona’s defence, in fact in the exact defensive channel that Griezmann patrols. It’s easy to see that with the Frenchman on the field, Monito Vargas wouldn’t have had the time he did to pick out the pass through to Wu Lei, but with Suárez and Messi watching the game as passengers, the pass was easily made and the Blaugrana were undone. All because their manager is his own worst enemy, a man allergic to the concept of joyous success, who thinks glory can only be found through suffering, a man incapable of going more than 45 minutes without embarrassing himself.