BARCELONA // Fans of Barcelona's second club Espanyol will never forget the 2009/10 campaign. What should have been a joyous pre-season to mark the opening of their new 40,000-capacity stadium was shattered when the club captain Dani Jarque died of a suspected heart defect during a pre-season tour of Italy.
Jarque, a popular local boy who had been at the club since the age of 12, had been a key player in the Espanyol side who won the Copa del Rey in 2006 and reached the Uefa Cup Final a year later. His proudest moment came when he captained the side for the opening game at the new stadium against Liverpool. Two weeks later, the same venue on the outskirts of Barcelona was turned into a temporary shrine as thousands paid their respects.
Espanyol's new home has been an unquestionable success. Fans waited 15 years for it to be built as they suffered in the soulless stadium of Montjuic, but the wait has been worth it. Average gates have surged from 21,000 to 30,000 and their home form has improved. This time last season, Espanyol had won just one home match - the worst record in the league. This season they have won six and lost three. Espanyol are also becoming more comfortable in their new home, winning four and drawing one of their last five. Their away form has slipped though, with just one victory from 12 games. Tonight's visitors, Villarreal, will find it a tough place, especially as they have only managed a solitary away win themselves. After an atrocious start to the season and a change in coach, Villarreal have climbed steadily to eighth with their eyes firmly on a top-six finish and the European football their fans have become accustomed too next season.
Espanyol have suffered from high- profile issues with their leading lights. Talismanic striker Raul Tamudo was involved in ugly contract negotiations where counter accusations were aired and tears flowed in an argument about his wage demands and whether he had asked to leave or not. Tamudo is now 33 and has seen his role become more peripheral, starting just four league games since August. Shunsuke Nakamura, the big summer signing from Celtic, was a failure. Woefully inconsistent, the Japanese winger was used sparingly by Espanyol's Argentine coach and renown taskmaster Mauricio Pochettino.
Needing to play regular football before the World Cup finals, Nakamura recently returned to Yokohama with Espanyol fans wondering what the fuss which follows every Japanese player in Europe had been about.There have been bright spots. Carlos Kameni, the goalkeeper, remains coveted and will travel to the World Cup as the Cameroon stopper, though his assertion that his country have the talent to win the competition will be tested.
And while no Espanyol player has scored more than three league goals, Jose Callejon, the 23-year-old striker, has done enough to attack the attention of several mid-ranking English Premier League sides. Callejon was prolific in Real Madrid's reserves, but is starved of chances at Espanyol. Another striker, Ben Sahar, the Israeli, promised much with two goals against Liverpool in the stadium inauguration game following his summer move from Chelsea, but he has started three times as many games on the bench than on the field.
Espanyol finished last season strongly to climb away from the relegation zone when they had appeared doomed at Christmas. They are currently 15th, seven points from safety and 11 from a Europa Cup spot. For better and worse, most fans will be glad to leave this season behind, though the memory of their captain Jarque will always remain strong. firstname.lastname@example.org