A couple of months have passed since our last football column, so plenty to pack in here. Those two months saw Barça play a total of 12 games – 8 in La Liga, 2 in the King’s Cup, one in the Champions league, and one in the Spanish Super cup – with a return of 7 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses. The first of those losses, a 3-2 defeat to Atlético Madrid in Saudi Arabia, spelled the end of Ernesto Valverde’s reign as head coach. Barça had actually come from a goal down to take the lead with goals from Messi and Griezmann, but two late strikes meant the blaugrana were knocked out of the Spanish Super cup at the semi final stage and deprived of a place in the final against Real Madrid.
Valverde was quickly replaced by Quique Setien. The new coach’s first four games have yielded three wins and one defeat, albeit with two of those games coming against weaker opposition in the King’s Cup, and the defeat being an important one, 2-0 away at Valencia in the league. That loss, combined with 3 draws in the previous 7 league outings, led to Barça ceding top spot to a recently rampant Real Madrid in La Liga. Valverde had a 67% winning record from 145 games at Barça, but most importantly he was seen to be lacking the ability to influence his team enough to win the bigger games – following last year’s Champions League debacle against Liverpool at Anfield, further evidence of this came in the 0-0 stalemate at the Camp Nou against Real Madrid before Christmas and the defeat to Simeone’s Atlético in Saudi Arabia.
Setien arrives at Barça well-respected in footballing circles, having built a reputation for himself as a coach who fosters expansive, possession-based football. As ever, Barça fans will be hoping that style can be combined with winning ways.
Valverde has not been the only high-profile coaching casualty in Catalan football since November, however. Barely two months after handing Pablo Machín the job, Espanyol sacked the former Girona and Sevilla coach on December 23. Despite qualifying for the round of 16 of the Europa League, the club had gained only 5 points of a possible 30 in the League under Machín, leaving the periquitos bottom of La Liga. He was replaced by the much-loved former Barça defender Abelardo, who had gained admirers as head coach of Sporting Gijon and then Alavés. Since his appointment, Espanyol have played six games, yielding a Cup win against minnows San Sebastien de los Reyes and a notable five points in the league – with a 2-1 away win at Villarreal and draws at home to then leaders Barça in the Barcelona city derby (2-2) and then against Athletic (1-1). However, this relative success was accompanied by two defeats away to Real Sociedad in the Cup (2-0) and a league defeat at Granada (2-1). Given the strength of the opposition in those two defeats, Espanyol fans will not be giving up hope yet that Abelardo can turn this round and hoist the club out of the relegation places to safety. That would be no mean feat, given that Espanyol remain bottom of the league with 15 points and just 3 wins from 22 games. What will give fans some room for optimism is the fact that three other teams – Leganés, Celta and Mallorca – are also in seriously poor shape down at the bottom.
Girona’s fortunes took a dip after topping the November form league in Division Two. Since then, Pep Lluís Martí’s side have lost 4 of the 7 league games they’ve played, and despite two wins against lower league opposition, were dumped out of the Cup 3-0 at home to Villarreal in late January to make it a fairly uninspiring start to 2020. Currently lying in 9th place on 35 points from 25 games, promotion back to the top flight is not out of the question, but Girona will need to go on a strong run from now until May if they are to separate themselves from the chasing pack and make it into the play-off places. That quest begins in February with an away game at stuttering Fuenlabrada.