The King's Cup run of third-division Mirandés was minutes away from another fairytale result on Tuesday night in Espanyol's Cornellá-El Prat stadium. But five minutes is a long time in soccer, particularly when your coach is the very demanding Mauricio Pochettino.
Two goals down with 85 minutes on the clock, many teams would have let their shoulders drop and resigned themselves to a testing second leg match but Pochettino's Espanyol, which has the youngest squad in La Liga with an average age of 26.4 years old, does not know the meaning of surrender.
Young Slovakian star Vladimir Weiss, on loan from Manchester City, reduced the deficit with a fine individual effort after Alain Arroyo and Pablo Infante had capitalized on defensive errors to give Mirandés its two-goal cushion. Rui Fonte, a second-half substitute, poked home Espanyol's second two minutes later after good work by another loanee, Sevilla's Koffi Romaric, on Mirandés' left flank. Verdú then picked up a wayward pass from Mirandés midfielder Mikel Martins on the edge of the area to slot the winner past Nauzet Pérez and send the home crowd into raptures.
Since Pochettino took over at Espanyol in 2009, he has busily gone about crafting a team in his own image. Only one player, club captain Cristian Álvarez, remains from the side he put out during his first game in charge in January 2009, with the team third from bottom in La Liga. "Trusting in youth players is a philosophy," the former Espanyol defender said last week. "I like working with them because of all they bring in enthusiasm and commitment, but I am also conscious of the demands you have to place on them."
Pochettino won the King's Cup twice as a player with Espanyol, in 2000 and 2006, and the Argentinean knows only too well what a trophy means to a side not accustomed to competing in La Liga or in Europe. Espanyol's president, Ramón Condal, also values the tournament if only as a backdoor route into Europe. Condal has targeted a place in the final as a legitimate prospect; with the four teams in the other half of the draw currently occupying one to four in La Liga, the losing side would qualify for the Europa League.
First, though, Espanyol must overcome Mirandés, which requires just a 1-0 win to go through. "Mirandés brings out the worst in every opponent. It will be difficult," noted Pochettino.