Summer in Spain's second city and it looked like the dumbest deal since the Dutch kept Pulau Run, happily handing over a strip of swampland on the Hudson instead; the worst bit of business since the guy from Decca burst into the boardroom and triumphantly announced: "I've signed this great new band. They're called the Tremeloes." Espanyol got rid of Raúl Tamudo and got in Sergio García. They'd booted out the greatest goalscorer in their history and replaced him with a bloke who was going to be good once but never was. Strapped for cash, living a little dangerously, they'd gone and signed the "striker" who had joined two clubs too good to go down and immediately gone down, the man with a perfect record: three first division clubs, three first division relegations. And they'd spent €6m – six flipping million – [or £5m] for the privilege.
They were doomed.
Doomed? Perhaps not. Six months later, Espanyol are in rude health. As the season reaches the halfway stage with Barcelona having broken every record going, top of La Liga on 52 points and with a +50 goal difference, across the city at what is becoming arguably the best football stadium in the country, their bitterly forgotten neighbours are performing a miracle all of their own. The club who, according to director Joan Collet, are suffering from "apartheid" – because what Espanyol suffer is just like Sharpeville and Robben Island – are really socking it to the man. Well, maybe not the man – Barcelona beat them 5-0, after all – but some men. Far from being in the relegation zone, Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol are just three points off a Champions League place.
They're not getting cocky. The coach Mauricio Pochettino keeps reminding his players that back in 2007-08 under Ernesto Valverde, 18 games into the season they were third having gone 14 matches unbeaten only to endure the worst second half in La Liga history, winning just three in 20. But one thing's for sure: they're safe. Seventeen consecutive seasons in the first division are about to become 18. Not that they'd be satisfied with that. The days of visiting the black virgin of Montserrat to plead for her intervention to survive are over. With Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and even Athletic Bilbao underachieving, with Valencia always simmering with latent self-destructive intent, a European slot and maybe even a top-four finish really isn't out of the question.
It is a huge success story – and this is the point in the story at which Sergio García proves everyone wrong, at which it is pointed out that he did play for Spain at Euro2008 and, according to his Wikipedia page, he did score 6969696969696969 goals as a kid at Barcelona. This is the point of the story at which Espanyol's sporting directorate puffs out its collective chest and goes: "See? See?!" Except that people do see.
And they have seen it all before too. No, sorry: this success, just like last year's success, has little to do with their summer signing.
Eighteen months ago, Espanyol signed Shunsuke Nakamura, publicly describing him as "finger licking good" and privately hailing him as the solution to all their problems, as 8,000 gathered for his presentation, Japanese TV signed an Espanyol-only deal and he released a light blue parakeet into the air like some kind of paladin of peace before going on to reveal the slight flaw in the plan: he is not very good. What followed was no goals, no assists, and an early departure. So far, Sergio García has scored just once – and that was an 87th-minute strike against Zaragoza, the fourth in a 4-0 win; so far, Sergio García's greatest contribution might just have been getting injured.
Now that may sound flippant, but it is true. Few clubs have made a virtue out of necessity quite like Espanyol. Fewer still have done it with the bravery and balls of Pochettino. When you look at Espanyol's success this season, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that much of it is the fruit of fortune. Or it would be if Espanyol had a fortune, if Pochettino was not such an impressive and resourceful manager, if those that came before him – those that built and developed the club's youth system – had not laid such solid foundations. Sergio García got injured, Ernesto Galán got injured, Felipe Mattioni got injured, Jesús Dátolo got injured. All of them are new signings. This weekend, Espanyol defeated Sevilla 2-1 at the Sánchez Pizjuán: Jedward impersonator José Callejón got both goals. He would have departed in the summer, but a deal fell apart. Not one of the starting XI was a summer signing.
Six of them are Espanyol youth team products. It is a running theme. When Espanyol's kids first emerged from the club's residency on Gran de Gràcia a decade or so ago – players like Joan Capdevila, Sergio González, Raúl Tamudo, Alberto Lopo and David García – one of their team-mates was the Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino. The commitment to, and importance of, the youth set-up was, says one insider, an idea he "suckled on from [then coach] Paco Flores." And although the economic reality of the club that is an estimated €115m in debt and occasionally pays its players late has seen that commitment undermined – Espanyol now only take kids from a 50km radius of the city, salaries have plummeted in the B team, and those who ask to come for a trial have to pay €100 for the privilege – the effects of that drop in funding have not yet filtered through.
Meanwhile, Pochettino's commitment remains steadfast and, notwithstanding signings like Sergio García who will be paid for over six years, the same economic reality that has seen diminishing investment in youth and forced the departure of seven players in the summer has also seen increasing need for youth.
When Pochettino took over as coach in 2008, his role was simply to save Espanyol, who lay in the relegation zone. With a little divine inspiration, he did. But the man who, adding together his playing and managing career, has now experienced more first division games for the club than anyone else in their history, also had an eye on building, on stability. He imposed a tactical style on the youth teams for the first time – Espanyol and the B team play 4-2-3-1, but everyone else has to play 4-4-2, which Pochettino believes is the best system for general development. He attends training sessions, speaks to players and coaches right the way through the system and demands constant updates. He also insisted on making each team play in an age group above, to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. As one member of the technical staff puts it: "We're not interested in our youth teams winning games; we're interested in them developing players for the first team."
It has worked. Not least because, as the sporting director Ramón Planes puts it: "You have to be very brave to give debuts to kids and stick with them." And Pochettino is brave: signings have played important roles, with winter arrivals Osvaldo and Iván Alonso especially significant over the last two and a half years, but he has handed debuts to 10 players from Espanyol's youth team. Only three clubs in the top flight have more youth team products in their first team squad: Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad and Barcelona. No squad has a younger average age. It has been worth it, too: Víctor Ruiz and Javi Márquez in particular have been hugely impressive – genuinely good players attracting interest from all over Europe.
Without Pochettino's trust, they might not have taken the step up. That trust goes beyond just throwing them in, too: the coach is extremely defensive of his players, very close to them. "When I saw him as a player, he was frightening," admits Ruíz, "but in person he is the exact opposite."
His sessions are, says one player, "fun". Yet the sessions are hard, too. "He makes you work like a dog," says Osvaldo. And if hanging around, sniffing each other's arses and licking your own balls doesn't sound particularly hard, think again. At first he introduced double sessions, fitness work in the morning, ball work in the afternoon, but now his sessions are short and intense. "Sometimes," Osvaldo adds, "you feel like killing him but it works."
If training is hard, so is the coach. For all the support, as the Spanish phrase has it, Pochettino doesn't get married to anyone; players are forced to remain on their toes, assured of nothing. As a player he was good friends with Raúl Tamudo and even shared investments with him but had no qualms about taking the captaincy off him and easing him to the door.
Moisés Hurtado and Rufete were both ushered towards the door too – both were dressing-room heavyweights. Pochettino's first physical coach lasted barely weeks – despite the fact that Pochettino is his son's godfather.
Pochettino insists on his team playing aggressively (only three sides have committed more fouls), pushing high up the pitch, and chasing down opponents. They are strikingly well organised. He has a recording system linked up to his iPhone where, with a single touch, he can automatically order up replays of the previous move, ready to use at half-time. His side does not have a huge amount of firepower but they are incredibly effective: last season they scored fewer than Leo Messi but every goal earned 1.51 points. This season that figure is at 1.36: they are fifth despite scoring just 25 goals and having a goal difference of nought. But if that makes them sound like they are long-ball merchants, the impression is false: Pochettino insists on playing the ball out under control wherever possible and not sitting back and parking the bus. Take this quote, for example: "There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you: Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football."
The man who said it? Pep Guardiola.
Although Espanyol are not always great to watch away from home, they've been impressive at Cornellà, where they have won eight out of nine – only losing to Barcelona. Like last season, when they picked up 33 of their 44 points at home and should have beaten Barcelona, 24 of their 34 so far this season have come at Cornellà. The intensity and aggression is helped by a new stadium where there is a real communion between stands and pitch – a communion enhanced by the presence of so many youth team products and also by the continued 'presence' of late captain Dani Jarque, who died of a heart attack during pre-season training before last season. "It sounds like a cliche," reveals one insider, "but once the shock of his death was overcome, that really has helped to create a bond and a sense of purpose".
After narrowly escaping relegation in 2009 and signing the player incapable of escaping it in 2010, what no one expected at the start of 2011 was for that purpose to be a place on Europe's biggest stage. Few expected the kids to be Espanyol's salvation but when it comes to Cornellà the kids are all right.
• Barcelona won. And scored loads of goals. Next.
• Real Madrid won. Next.
Eh? Oh, hang on, no: that's not right. For the first time in 13 games not including the clásico, Madrid lost. Well, they didn't actually lose.
Not in the concede more goals than the opposition sense of the word 'lose'.
But they did lose in the new, La Liga sense of word 'lose' – after all, this is the league where for Madrid and Barcelona draws are the new defeats. And last night Madrid drew 1-1 with bottom of the table Almería.
They almost won mind you – Cristiano Ronaldo smashed a 93.33-minute free-kick off the bar. Although it is only a draw, it has been treated as the match that might just have lost them the league. Madrid are now four points behind Barcelona – and that's only one point fewer than Barça have dropped all season. Given that it's head-to-head goal difference that separates teams at the end of the season, Madrid would have to beat Barcelona 6-0, too – or else it is effectively a five-point lead. No wonder Marca called it "a slip-up that could be fatal", as if Madrid were an ice skater atop a cliff.
Madrid are feeling a bit hard done by after three penalty shouts went unheeded – and oddly it's only the one that no one really appealed for at the time (Benzema's) that this column thinks is a penalty – but that does not change the fact that they didn't play well. Or the fact that there is trouble brewing. Having gone on and on about needing a new striker, José Mourinho left Karim Benzema out of the starting XI. When, finally, he came on, he made a big difference. And after the game, director general Jorge Valdano said: "We have been distracted by all the talk of a new striker," adding pointedly: "We had a No9 and he was on the bench."
• That shot against the bar meant that Ronaldo did not score this week. And although Pedro, Iniesta and Villa did (Villa is now only the second player in history to score at least 14 goals a season for eight consecutive seasons), nor did Leo Messi. They are RUBBISH.
• Any time anyone says that the rest of La Liga is just not very good, there is a simple one word answer: Villarreal. Yes, the league is desperately unbalanced and, yes, Barcelona and Madrid's statistics are ridiculous. But it's not because the rest of the teams are awful. Not all of them, anyway. Villarreal are a genuinely good side playing wonderful football – a side that would surely challenge anywhere else in the world.
This weekend they got four against Osasuna – including Cani's astonishing goal from barely a handful of centimetres inside the opposition half.
• Luis García, the Levante manager, was sent off this weekend. His heinous crime? Saying "that was a goal!".
• Espanyol are not the only side forced to rely on their kids. They're also not the only side to discover that the kids are all right: Real Sociedad expected to struggle but they finish the first half of the season in mid-table and nine points clear of the drop. Their one foreigner on Saturday, Antoine Griezmann, was the one man who chose to celebrate his goal – and a very nice goal it was too – by kissing the Basque flag on the sleeve of his shirt. Which rather upset the Getafe fans.
• Preciado wins for the first time in 12 weeks. Preciado stays in a job.
Moustache enthusiasts rejoice. Angry Madrid fans rejoice too: they look forward to whacking him one at the Bernabéu.
Results: Villarreal 4-2 Osasuna, Getafe 0-4 Real Sociedad, Zaragoza 1-0 Levante, Sporting 2-0 Hércules, Athletic 2-1 Racing, Sevilla 1-2 Espanyol, Valencia 2-0 Deportivo, Almería 1-1 Real Madrid, Barcelona 4-1 Málaga, Atlético-Mallorca, tonight