The storm clouds are gathering around Ronald Koeman’s Barça, as convincing defeats to first Bayern Munich (0-3) and Benfica (3-0) in the Champions League, and then away at Atlético (2-0) in La Liga at the start of October led to further calls for the Dutchman to be replaced. Prior to that game at the league champions, club President Joan Laporta gave Koeman the dreaded vote of confidence – dreaded because it so often precedes an imminent dismissal in football – although general sentiment in the Catalan media is that Koeman’s continuity is now only assured by the lack of a serious contender to replace him. As the second international break of the young season dawned, the general viewpoint is that Laporta and his board will spend these ten days scouring the planet for a credible successor to Barça’s “hero of Wembley”.
Those painfully glaring defeats to clearly stronger opponents were accompanied by feeble draws at home to Granada (1-1, and only thanks to a last minute equaliser by Ronald Araújo, one of Barça’s brighter sparks this season) and away at Cádiz (0-0). The sole victory since my last column came against a very poor Levante side at the Camp Nou, when the much anticipated return of Ansu Fati – who had been out injured for 10 months – lived up to the hype, the youngster coming off the bench to score in an easy 3-0 win. Bravely donning the Nº 10 jersey last worn by you know who, Ansu Fati briefly gave Barça fans some hope of a change in fortunes. But the subsequent defeat at Atlético exposed all of this Barça’s shortcomings for all to see. Caught out twice at the back by some slick Atlético one-touch passing, Koeman’s men were barely able to create any serious threat on the league champions’ goal, aside from one poor miss by Coutinho in the second half. Koeman’s repeated bemoaning of the fact that Barça cannot get around the back of teams because they are lacking the players to do that – the missing Dembele, Jordi Alba and until last week, Ansu Fati being those capable of doing that – therefore forcing Barça to play a direct attacking game with balls into the area is getting short shrift from media and fans alike, and the Dutchman’s reign at the Camp Nou seems to be close to ending, as the team will return from the break in an unprecedented 8th place in the league, with difficult games against Valencia, Dynamo Kiev and then Real Madrid awaiting them.
Espanyol’s form has taken a turn for the better in the last couple of weeks as they registered their first wins of the season. The first came against lowly Deportivo Alavés at the RCDE Stadium, a Raúl de Tomás penalty providing Vicente’s side with a much need lift following a start to the season which had returned just three points from five games. The seeds of optimism had already been sown with a 96th-minute Leandro Cabrera equaliser in a 2-2 draw away at Betis after being unlucky to lose 2-1 at home to two late goals by champions Atlético (the winner coming in the 98th minute in that one), but a 2-0 defeat at Sevilla could hardly have prepared fans for the monumental achievement of beating Real Madrid 2-1 at home at the start of October. Aleix Vidal added to another De Tomás goal to put the periquitos 2-0 up before they survived a late rally after Madrid had pulled one back through Benzema. With those two wins and the way things are at Barça right now, Espanyol fans will suddenly be viewing the trip to the Camp Nou on November 21 with anticipation rather than dread.
Although Girona escaped from Oviedo with a point (0-0) in the final game of September to add to the three points they had picked up in the vital 1-0 win at home to Valladolid, there was little to suggest that Michel’s side is going to make much headway this season. Defeats in the previous three games away at Ponferradina (2-1) and Malaga (2-0) and at home to Sporting Gijón (1-2) had already highlighted the team’s lack of attacking prowess, and those four points, which lift Girona up to 18th in the table, will not yet bring fans much hope of another promotion push. Improvements will be needed in all areas, especially from players expected to contribute much more than they are doing, such as Borja García, Samu Saiz and Baena, if Girona are to threaten more than a midtable finish this season.