At the risk of dropping through to LaLiga trapdoor to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time in three seasons, RCD Espanyol de Barcelona gave themselves every hope of climbing closer towards safety with a 2-1 victory on the road at Rayo Vallecano last Sunday. Meanwhile, Atlético Madrid confirmed their 11th successive participation in the UEFA Champions League – where los Colchoneros will again compete against the best that European club football has to offer after a 3-1 success over Osasuna at the familiar setting of the Metropolitano.
Los Periquitos boss Luis García kept faith in the side that beat Rayo, with Mexico international César Montes replacing Sergi Gómez in the only change. Like his managerial counterpart, Diego Simeone also made one alteration – an enforced one at that – with Ángel Correa replacing Atlético’s then injury-struck joint-top league topgoalscorer Álvaro Morata.
ESP: Pacheco, Oliván, Cabrera, Montes, Gil, Calero; Suárez, Darder, Melamed; Puado, Joselu
ATL: Grbić, Carrasco, Giménez, Hermoso, Molina, Witsel; De Paul, Koke, Ñíguez; Correa, Griezmann
Knowing victory in their remaining three games would give them the best hope of surviving relegation without having to rely on the unpredictable of other results, Espanyol flew out of traps as Nico Melamed and then fellow attacking asset Javi Puado fired two quick-fire efforts straight at Ivo Grbić almost immediately from the kick-off.
However, keeping the league’s third-highest goalscorers at bay was never going to be easy, as Espanyol finally succumbed to Atlético’s plethora of attacking talent in the 21st minute. Following a less-than-impressive loan spell at Premier League side Chelsea last summer, Saúl Ñíguez has looked like a rejuvenated figure for los Colchoneros this season, as the Spanish international further increased his already-brimming confidence by sublimely directing Mario Hermoso’s defence-splitting-pass into the far corner – via the slight assistance of the left-hand post, to give the visitors the lead.
Seeking a way back into the contest before half-time, Leandro Cabrera was left in a state of disbelief in the 34th minute as Grbić made himself big at his front post to keep out the defender’s towering header. Nonetheless, when things are not going well for you in football, they rarely get better quickly, and VAR intervened to instruct referee Mario Melero López to point back to the centre-circle to award Antoine Griezmann with his 14th goal of the La Liga season – the striker had clinically fired home the rebound, despite the best efforts of Pacheco after Yannick Carrasco’s shot had bounced back into his path following hitting the post.
In stark contrast to their promising start to the game, Espanyol were hit with what looked like a knockout blow by Atlético almost immediately from the restart, as Carrasco instinctively fired home another rebound after Pacheco had failed to keep hold of Ángel Correa’s speculative long-range effort. With the three points seemingly safely back on the los Colchoneros’ coach, Griezmann should have further extended the lead, but the prolific goalscoring machine could only disappointingly loft his strike over the top of the crossbar – when it appeared easier to have scored.
However, Griezmann’s miss would return to haunt Atlético, as César Montes started a sensational comeback in the 64th minute with an expertly-taken glancing header via substitute Aleix Vidal’s inswinging corner. Incredibly, los Periquitos thought they had reduced the deficit to only a single goal, but referee López brought a cruel conclusion to excitement within the crowd after it was confirmed to him that Joselu had strayed marginally offside in the build-up prior to firing the ball home. Nonetheless, the hosts’ top-scorer had his goal moments later, unleashing an unstoppable spot-kick past Grbić after the deputising shot-stopper had inexplicably given away a penalty.
With the momentum firmly now on their side, Espanyol completed their unbelievable comeback within 15 second-half minutes, as another player from the dugout, Vinícius Souza, headed a pinpoint delivery from Vidal beyond Grbić to send the majority inside of the RCDE Stadium into delirious celebrations. Nonetheless, Luis García’s side could not complete their fairytale ending on an enthralling end-to-end bums-off-seats evening, as the Atlético goalkeeper restored some self-pride by brilliantly denying Joselu with time running out.
Admittedly, a less-than-ideal point leaves Espanyol three points from safety with only two matches left to play this season, as los Periquitos travel to fellow bottom-three rivals Valencia for a proverbial end-of-season relegation ‘six-pointer’. However, it will not be easy at the Mestalla Stadium on Sunday as los Che beat Real Madrid 1-0 in their last home LaLiga match – though the Catalan side will look to capitalise on a diminished atmosphere resulting from Valencia’s enforced partial stadium closure. Meanwhile, a late collapse from Atlético leaves Diego Simeone’s side one point behind their arch-local adversaries, following los Blancos’ late victory over Rayo Vallecano.