Javier Aguirre has revived Espanyol

The Catalans have fallen on hard times but only a year ago they were punching above their weight, writes Andy Mitten.

Espanyol were seventh a year ago. They entered 2012 with the fourth best away record and fans talked reasonably about a top-six finish and a cup run. Their optimism increased as they continued to rise up the table, hitting fourth in February.

With the eighth-highest wage bill in Spain, Espanyol were punching above their weight, steadily improving and dreaming of a first Uefa Champions League appearance.

When they held neighbours Barcelona, Pep Guardiola commented on their quality and how they had made the league tough for them to retain.

Espanyol upset the big boys.

Then it started to go wrong. Their cup run was ended by a regional third-division side and that set the template for the horrendous year to follow. When a hapless, hopeless Real Zaragoza beat Espanyol 2-0 in Barcelona, coach Mauricio Pochettino described it as "a little accident". It was not.

Espanyol tumbled down the table to finish 14th and the Argentine was fortunate not to join the twelve top-flight coaches who lost their job last season. His side were 18th in the fair-play table, with more yellow cards received than any other club.

Espanyol's youthful beauty had been replaced by a snarling beast who did not know how to lose gracefully.

The new season did not bring relief as they picked up just two points from their opening seven matches and sat bottom. By the end of November, they had managed two wins from 13 games and remained 20th.

Crowds in their new, 40,000-seat stadium tumbled from nearly 30,000 a year ago to just 15,500 for one league match. The Blanquiazules have 21,000 season-ticket holders - over 5,000 of them decided that they could not be bothered to attend games they had already paid for.

The beleaguered, debt-ridden club once heralded as a role model for a medium-sized operation were falling apart. Just 7,463 watched a November Copa del Rey game against Sevilla. They lost 3-0.

The president departed and Pochettino was finally dismissed in November. Replaced by former Mexico and Atletico Madrid coach Javier Aguirre, fortunes finally began to improve. Espanyol drew his first three matches and held Real Madrid away. Then they beat Deportivo in their last match.

The battle to stay up will not get easier, since their first game of 2013 is away to neighbours Barcelona on Saturday.

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