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Monday, January 30

Mirandés 2 - 1 Espanyol: It's Not Midnight Yet

A look at third-division Mirandés defeating Espanyol 2-1, thereby advancing on aggregate via away goals to the Copa del Rey semi-finals.

It was a win with so little in the way of peer that describing it as historic is actually apt: Mirandés is only the third third-division side to advance to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey since 1931.

And it'd be difficult -- and wrong -- to say it isn't warranted.

Carlos Pouso fielded a 4-2-3-1 for the home side with the same lineup as the first leg save one exception: Gomez Nacho Garro started in one of the holding roles over Antxon Muneta.  Espanyol also employed a 4-2-3-1 shape but had more changes: Rui Fonte and Juan Albín started in the attacking half in lieu of Alvaro Vazquez and Thievy Koulossa, while Raul Rodriguez and Ernesto Galan played in defense  over Jordi Amat and Javi Lopez.

The Starting XIs

It took a while for Mirandés to find their footing, opening the game with all hands on deck defending with a first-line of five and a back-line of four sometimes augmented by a dropping midfielder.  Espanyol looked to dictate the tempo from the beginning, but sound defending from Mirandés buoyed the home side's ambition, leading to Mirandés gradually forgoing the original plan of long-ball-and-pray like many smaller sides are wont to do against superior opponents, choosing instead to play more positively by looking to build up play down the flanks and play crosses and cutbacks in.

Banker-by-day, Mirandés-captain-by-night Pablo Infante had influence on the left wing in the first half, drifting inside to either find space or win aerial battles all while linking play up and down the flank, going so far as to even create space for full-back Inaki Garmendia to make overlapping runs.  There wasn't all that much creativity elsewhere for Mirandés, but by the half-hour mark, Mirandés had gained the game's tempo and it was Espanyol defending with nine and looking to bomb unlikely balls down the field.  While playing-the-score-off for a side ahead over two legs wouldn't normally be notable, a third-division side getting the better of a first-division side and forcing that first-division side onto their backfoot is.

It was 0-0 at half: Mirandés had reason to be encouraged, getting well the better of the game's chances, but Espanyol was still through by way of winning the first leg 3-2.

It took only until the second minute of the second half for the conditions of the tie to change.  After winning the ball in defense after a series of throw-ins, Espanyol played the ball for winger Vladimir Weiss in behind the advanced-Garmendia.  From there, Weiss beat not one but two Mirandés defenders down the touchline and endline, leaving Espanyol with a 3-on-1.  Mirandés keeper Gonzalez Nauzet was wise to the problem, however, and dove for Weiss' cutback pass, sending out of the box the pass which would've surely led to a goal had it been completed.

Mirandés' danger was not yet over, though.  The loose ball went right to Jose Baena, and his ensuing cross was found by Rui Fonte who, in turn, finished back across the face of goal through the sticks and into the bottom corner of the netting.  Nauzet was in no man's land: he drifted right instead of coming out for a cross he very well could've gotten a fist to, and any hit by Fonte to the keeper's left was good for a goal should it have been hit true.

Mirandés, unsurprisingly, was then forced to press with greater intensity and higher up the pitch, no longer needing just one goal to get through.  Espanyol, quite surprisingly, kept playing aggressively, electing to attempt to kill the tie off with another goal rather than defend for another three-quarters of an hour.  So when Mirandés won the ball in their own half in the fifty-eighth minute and played the ball long across and up the pitch to Infante, Infante had plenty of real estate to not just receive the ball cleanly well in front of his mark but to then successfully dribble down the left flank before cutting inside well above the penalty box to unleash a twenty-five-yard attempted curler.  After it took an immediate deflection, however, the Espanyol keeper, Kiko Casilla, was caught on the wrong foot, and Infante's wayward strike took one hop in the six yard area before ricocheting in off the far post, beating a late-diving Casilla, pulling one back for the third-division Davids.

It took until the sixty-third minute for the game to finally take a turn towards the predictable: Espanyol manager Mauricio Pochettino brought on the midfielder Koulossa for the attacker Albín.  But it was only a slight turn: Espanyol still looked to control the game through either aggressive countering or phase-to-phase build-up, and Mirandés was even more emboldened to keep spamming either diagonal balls across the field or service for one-on-one aerial battles at Espanyol's back-line, favouring the raw advantage in quantity of unlikely balls over the low quantity of patient chances.  Souso's tactical choice was, given Espanyol's shakiness at the back and the hands of the clock approaching midnight, decidedly correct.  And with both teams looking for another goal, the last twenty minutes were far more end-to-end than a tie in immediate doubt would normally be.

So, while fitting for a game between first and third division sides, it was odd for this game to be decided on a set piece.  With four minutes of stoppage time already added, and in the ninety-second minute, Mirandés won a free kick near the touchline of the left-flank, maybe thirty yards out from the spot.  With even Casilla forward, Infante delivered the set-piece to the near post, hoping for one of his men to get in front of their Espanyol marker.  Achieving that aim was centre-back Fernandez César, and his header beat Casilla to the near post.
This is history in the making, so we have to face it as best we can.  We're very humble people not used to all of this media attention but we're trying to do the best we can.  There is a lot of desire and hope knowing we're so close to the final. Let's see what we can do.  -- Pablo Infante
It's not midnight yet.

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