El Centrocampista

Mission Impossible – Can Javier Aguirre rejuvenate post-Pochettino Espanyol?

Photo: Rodolfo Molina/Diario AS

Things are currently somewhat difficult for Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol. Languishing at the foot of the table, the Barcelona-based side have won just two games so far this term and are already onto their second coach of the season.

As if things weren’t bad enough for Espanyol, their city rivals FC Barcelona have just made the best start to any season in the history of Spanish football and look odds-on favourites to reclaim the league crown they lost last season to Real Madrid.

This dreadful start to the season gave newly-elected President Joan Collet the first major challenge of his tenure as he took the difficult decision to relieve popular coach Mauricio Pochettino of his job after four relatively stable years in charge.

In truth, the writing was on the wall for the amiable Argentine – who was La Liga’s longest serving coach, and there were few surprises when a press conference was held to announce the decision in the final week of November.

The club had been in free-fall since the end of last season, picking up just one point from the last five matches, and there was little evidence Pochettino could stop the rot as Espanyol took their dreadful form into the new campaign.

After being briefly linked with a move for former Sevilla coach Marcelino Garcia Toral, President Collet finally announced that vastly-experienced Mexican Javier Aguirre would be the man to replace Pochettino and the hard work began to address the club’s dire situation.

Espanyol are understood to have debts in excess of €140 million and face growing costs for a beautiful new stadium at Cornella El-Prat that they are currently struggling to fill. With a dwindling membership now said to be below the 30,000 mark, there seems little  hope that their short-term fiscal situation will improve.

In reality, many fans were sorry to see Pochettino leave the club, however, it was becoming increasingly clear change was needed. Nonetheless, the Argentine  probably had some reason to feel aggrieved after he had overseen one of Espanyol’s most consistent periods (on the pitch at least) in recent times.

Pochettino will no doubt point to the fact that he guided the club to three consecutive mid-table finishes, bringing stability to a notoriously unstable club in the process. This was no mean feat either when one considers the constraints he was forced to operate under.

The 40-year-old had to sit back and watch as his squad was stripped of its best assets each summer, leaving Pochettino with a rag-tail bunch of exhausted veterans, rookie youngsters and mostly poor quality loan signings.

Like so many clubs in Spain, financial difficulties have hit Espanyol and they were forced to cash in on the likes of Pablo Osvaldo, Victor Ruiz and Jose Maria Callejon. Despite getting good money for these players however, Pochettino saw little of it made available for new signings.

The club have instead, relied heavily on loan deals, with varying degrees of success. The best of these short term deals were Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho and Manchester City winger Vladimir Weiss, however, their departure has left a sizable hole which has not been filled.

Espanyol were said to be keen on retaining the services of Weiss, yet their instability meant they had to sit by and watch as the 23-year-old instead join modest Italian outfit Pescara. Three months later and his former coach had left the Catalan club as well.

It is now a new dawn, and a new day for the club and that is where Javier Aguirre comes in. The man they call el Vasco is a vastly experienced campaigner and has a proven track record in the Spanish top flight. Arguably his greatest achievement came at Osasuna where not only did he lead the Pamlona-based side out of the relegation zone, he also guided them to a first-ever Champions League qualification the following season.

Aguirre also spent three seasons in the Spanish capital where he also guided Atletico Madrid into the Uefa’s flagship club competition, before leaving for an fairly mediocre second spell as coach of Mexico. The 54-year-old was last seen at Zaragoza where he worked miracles to pull them from the foot of the table to avoid relegation, only to be shown the exit just six months later by the club’s controversial owner Agapito Iglesias.

The former Osasuna midfielder is seen as a solid short-term appointment for Espanyol but few expect him to spend too much time at the club. Aguirre has been brought in with the objective of keeping Espanyol in the top flight. Nobody is looking beyond that – it is here and now. It is what Aguirre is good at.

The January transfer window offers little to no chance of any new faces coming into the club, in fact Aguirre may actually have fewer players once the deadline passes. Yet the highly-respected tactician will be under no illusion as to the size of the task that faces him at the Cornella El-Prat.

Espanyol have since drawn both games Aguirre has overseen and improvements have been seen, however there is still work to be done. They conceded a late equaliser to ten-man Sevilla last Friday and face a daunting trip to the capital to face Real Madrid at the weekend, nonetheless, many will now be hopeful they can build on this solid, if unspectacular start to Aguirre’s reign.

The bare facts remain for the new coach. He has inherited a technically limited squad and has little prospect of strengthening it until the summer at least. Espanyol have no money and a cantera that was sorely under-used by Pochettino.

Those players that did make the break into the first team have long-since gone and Pochettino’s reluctance to blood the sides youth has left them sorely inexperienced now the likes of loanees Coutinho and Weiss have left La Liga.

Few people will doubt Pochettino’s love for Espanyol, yet  sometimes emotional attachment is not enough. The final days of his regime suggested he had lost the dressing room – with rumours circulating that a number of players were unhappy under his leadership.

Ever the pragmatist, however, Mauricio Pochettino bore no malice to his former employers and even refused to accept the severance pay that he was due from the termination of his contract.

Few should be surprised, however. Here is a  man who once said he would never leave the club as his sons were such big fans they even slept in Espanyol pyjamas. A man who has handled his affairs in exemplary fashion, and a man who has lost none of his integrity.

Speaking the day after his departure from Espanyol, Pochettino paid tribute to the fans and said they had ‘endured many things’ before adding ‘they deserved to recover their ambition.’

The club now face the difficult task of turning their season around. They began last week by dragging themselves off the foot of the table – albeit on head-to-head with Deportivo, but the job facing Javier Aguirre could be the toughest he has faced during his career.

With low moral, a limited squad and no money, the Mexican will have to call on his legendary motivational skills like never before.  Even the club President is under no illusions about their current predicament saying: “The bad start means we will now pay for the rest of the season.”

It may end in relegation, it may not. What is for certain however, is that President Collet can count on Javier Aguirre to fight to the bitter end if needs be.


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