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On the brink – Chinese-owned Espanyol set to drop out of La Liga

Forever condemned to live in the shadow of Barcelona, Espanyol’s worst nightmare will come true on Wednesday if they are doomed to relegation from La Liga by their city neighbours.

It is a likely scenario. With four games remaining, Chinese-owned Espanyol are rock bottom, 11 points from safety. Even a win at the Camp Nou would therefore only delay the inevitable.

Los Periquitos (The Budgerigars) have not beaten Barcelona in La Liga since 2009, when Mauricio Pochettino was coach.

Wednesday therefore looks set to be the day of reckoning for a club who are one of the proudest names in Spanish football.

It is too much to bear for fans, with the Federation of Espanyol Supporters’ Clubs this week issuing a statement to express their dismay at what has happened under the current ownership.

China’s Rastar Group, which specialises in model cars, paid 60 million euros ($67.7m) for 54 per cent of the club’s shares in January 2016. They now own almost 100 per cent.

“We have been deeply angered by this shameful season, the worst in our history,” said the federation, which has called on president Chen Yansheng to hand over the reins to someone based locally.

“We want to express our indignation, our sadness, our disappointment, anger and feeling of helplessness at witnessing this pathetic relegation.”

Espanyol have spent the season chopping and changing coaches, with David Gallego, Pablo Machin and Abelardo Fernandez all being sacked before sporting director Francisco Rufete was put in charge last month. He has been unable to halt the slide.

“The whole team are fed up with the situation, but they can’t give up. We have to keep fighting until the end,” Rufete said after a 1-0 defeat by Leganes at the weekend. “We have to go to the Camp Nou and play for pride.”

Sorry season

Espanyol’s sorry season has been all the harder to take as it came off the back of a fine 2018-19 campaign under Rubi.

He led them to seventh place and Europa League qualification, only to depart for Real Betis, taking top scorer Borja Iglesias with him. Spanish international defender Mario Hermoso left for Atletico Madrid and those departures were not adequately replaced.

“I can’t understand how 80 million euros has been spent on transfers, and with the eighth-biggest budget in the league, the club has had the worst season in its history,” fumed former president Joan Collet.

They did make it to the Europa League knockout rounds, but lost to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

There has been little else to cheer. Signed amid much excitement last year, Chinese striker Wu Lei has contributed just four league goals this season, including a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Barcelona in January.

Proud history

That would not be enough this time for a club who have won the Copa del Rey four times and twice reached the UEFA Cup final, most recently in 2007 when Ernesto Valverde’s team lost on penalties to Sevilla in Glasgow.

Only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have spent more seasons in the top division than Espanyol — founded in 1900 and named not as a counter to the Catalanism of Barca, as is sometimes assumed, but as a reaction to a Barcelona team whose players were mostly foreigners.

Espanyol’s blue and white has graced the elite in 26 consecutive campaigns, playing in three different stadiums in that time.

They left their old home in Sarria in 1997 and spent a dozen years at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium before moving into a 40,000-seat home near the city’s airport in 2009.

That same year, club captain Dani Jarque died of a heart attack aged 26, and it was left to Pochettino to guide the team through the aftermath of that tragedy.

For all his efforts, Espanyol struggled to fill their new ground and continue to do so, despite trying to promote their own underdog identity.

Unlike their neighbours they have kept their distance from the Catalan independence movement, but Espanyol has a squad with a strong local core. That may not help them on Wednesday against Lionel Messi and co.

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