Meet Barcelona's Other Unbeaten Team: RCD Espanyol 3-2 Athletic Club

Samuel MarsdenChief Writer IVApril 10, 2017

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 23: Iker Muniain (R) of Athletic Club leaves the pitch dejected after being defeated as Victor Sanchez of RCD Espanyol and his team-mate Javi Lopez of RCD Espanyol celebrate their victory during the La Liga match between RCD Espanyol and Athletic Club at Cornella-El Prat Stadium on September 23, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

It was nearly midnight in Barcelona when referee Juan Martinez Munuera blew for full time at Cornella-El Prat. Just under 18,000 people had ignored the city's La Merce festival and they were duly rewarded by an early goal of the season contender from Victor Sanchez.

The defensive midfielder had only scored twice in an Espanyol shirt in La Liga before Monday night, but his brace doubled his total as Los Pericos extended their unbeaten start to the season with a 3-2 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Javier Aguirre's work since taking the reigns at Barcelona's second team last November has been little short of miraculous. He replaced Mauricio Pochettino, who left them rock bottom of Spain's Primera Division, and guided them on a wonderful run to eventually finish comfortably placed in 13th last season—at one point European qualification wasn't out of the question.

They weren't among the major movers and shakers over the summer—Pizzi and Juan Fuentes were the only starters not contracted with the club last season on Monday night—but they've begun the new term as they ended the last: in form.

Having already seen off Valencia at Cornella, Athletic became the latest high-profile victims to leave empty-handed after Sanchez's double and a Sergio Garcia header sealed the three points to take Espanyol level in fourth place with Villarreal on 11 points.

Sanchez's first is worth watching again. And again. And maybe one more time.

Following a break inspired by the pace of Pizzi, Athletic only managed to half-clear a corner. Sanchez, watching the ball bounce ahead of him for several seconds, swung an outrageous left boot and saw his effort swerve in off the post. The Basque side did level before half-time, Mikel Rico's pass bundled in by Oscar De Marcos, but it was Espanyol who emerged the better after the break.

Pizzi's smart overhead pass found the impressive Garcia on the right, and the No. 9's low, fizzing cross was met to perfection by Johnny-come-lately Sanchez.

Espanyol fans wouldn't have believed what they were witnessing 10 months ago, but there was an air or expectancy around the ground by the time Garcia, at the third time of trying, nodded their third of the night past Gorka Iraizoz. By the time substitute Ibai Gomez added Athletic's second from a stoppage-time free-kick, it was too late.

Javier Aguirre
Javier AguirreDavid Ramos/Getty Images

It's an old cliche, but there's something to be said for "There's no superstars" when it comes to Espanyol. Aguirre has his team set up well. The players are disciplined, and each player knows his role.

On Monday night Sanchez, alongside his defensive midfield colleague David Lopez, shackled Beñat Etxebarria. They'd previously done similarly impressive jobs on Ever Banega (Valencia) and Joan Verdu (Real Betis).

Almost as impressive is the solidity displayed by Hector Moreno and Diego Colotto in the middle of defence.

Elsewhere, Garcia is an able worker up front. Kiko Casillas, who has attracted attention from Arsenal, is a safe bet between the sticks. And there's a lick of excitement in the form of Pizzi and Thievy Bifouma.

Depth might not be a particularly strong point, given the troubling finances and the need to balance the books at the club, as is standard in Spain. But they possess a nice variety among their squad—in terms of youth and experience, and in terms of playing style.

Real Sociedad, or hipsters-elect they are not, but neither are they as straight-cut as Juan Ignacio Martinez's Levante were. Aguirre seems to have found the right balance.

It's early, but in a league lamented as one which has two paces, there is no reason they can't aim high. Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Atletico Madrid they'll never be, but who comes next? Valencia and Athletic were two of the clubs most fancied for fourth, and Espanyol have already shown they can compete with them.

The roars which greeted the full-time whistle as Tuesday dawned, together with the smiles on their faces, suggests there are certainly no limitations on Espanyol fans' dreams at the moment.

And why should there be?