Joselu's journey: A dream-like Spain call-up to Espanyol's relegation nightmare

The day the Spain squad was announced, Joselu Mato had the morning off, left with nothing to do but wait a little longer -- like he hadn't done enough of that already. It was 14 years since the Espanyol striker made his professional debut, a fortnight before his 33rd birthday and still a few hours until he found out if he was in for the first time. He had asked Dani Carvajal -- Real Madrid's full-back and his brother-in-law -- how it worked when the national team called you, and he had been told that they didn't really do that. You would know when everyone else did, when the list went up online.

And so, he told El Pais, he went for a walk with his dog -- anything to calm his nerves and kill time, which seemed to be standing still. Then he sat by the screen, refreshing the Federation's website until it stopped working. He went on Twitter instead, where the news eventually dropped. No easy-to-read written list here -- when will football teams learn? -- but a video going through the players one by one. Joselu, desperate now, fast-forwarded to the forwards where he found himself, and the family went wild. It would take another 15 minutes to go back and watch it all to work out who was going to Malaga and Glasgow with him.

In other words, it took Joselu longer to find out who his new teammates were than it did for him to find the net alongside them. And now, the return to reality is almost as rapid.

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Joselu said he had dreamed of making his Spain debut and scoring but even his dreams weren't this good. Sent on for his debut with the score at 1-0 and the clock on 80:31 against Norway on Saturday, just 48 seconds had passed since Alex Sorloth had missed a great chance to level it and Spain were under serious pressure. But Joselu scored a header on 82:59 -- all that wait, and his first international goal had come in two minutes, 28 seconds. Which, it turned out, was just the start. His second came 107 seconds later -- and well over half of those had been spent celebrating the first, lying in the corner with a pile of bodies on top of him.

Unable to believe what had happened then, this was even more silly. It had taken Joselu four minutes, 15 seconds to score two on his Spain debut. "This is the best thing there is," he said. The new Spain coach Luis de la Fuente had been given a winning start in charge of the national team. "I'm proud to be proud," he said of Joselu.

Three days later, though, the day after Joselu's 33rd birthday, Spain were defeated in Scotland. Eight changes had been made to the team, it lost 2-0, and although they could point to individual errors and bad luck -- Pedro Porro had slipped on the first goal, Carvajal had been nudged easily off the ball for the second -- it could even have been worse. Joselu had started for the first time. To use his own words, he had been up against "three great big beasts" of centre-backs, fighting his way through, but he hadn't managed to score: he saw one header saved and another come back off the bar.

The optimism, already cautious, around the seleccion slipped away. In its place came the criticism, not least because it seemed that de la Fuente didn't see the flaws everyone else could, nor did anyone apply the self-criticism that was required. Rodri had called Scotland's approach "rubbish," complaining about the pitch, while the coach declared himself satisfied with two performances in which Spain had not impressed -- and if they had won the first, the result in the second was a shock.

Spain had not lost in their last 20 Euros qualifiers and had not been beaten by Scotland since 1984. Maybe that was part of the reason: maybe they had succumbed to hubris. But there was also a more basic concern, a question: is this it? Is this what it is?

This weekend Joselu faces a different world, almost like all that really was some kind of dream, an international interlude out of keeping with a career carved out the hard way.

Virtually the last thing Joselu had done with his club before the call came from Spain was to miss the kind of chance he never misses as Espanyol were defeated 3-1 by Celta at home. It was such a clear chance, he said, that maybe at some level he trusted too much that he just would score. The man who started for Real Madrid (and scored on his debut), but was forced to head to Germany and England, who joined Deportivo La Coruna and Alaves, where he scored 40 goals in three years only to be denied the chance to join Sevilla and suffering relegation too, momentarily forgot how difficult football can be.

Defeat against Celta was Espanyol's third in a row, and it left them a single place and a single point off the relegation zone. In the stands at Cornella, some people called for manager Diego Martinez to be sacked. Not many, but that there were any at all was striking. "It's a very hard moment, a screwed up one," the coach said. "It's going to be a very long night for Espanyol fans."

It would be more than one, the international break prolonging the pain. It is always an opportunity for a club to move against their manager too. Witness Sevilla, who reacted to defeat against Getafe by immediately sacking Jorge Sampaoli. Or Elche, who sacked Pablo Machin and replaced him with another man whose agent is the club's owner. Espanyol didn't. Few doubt that Martinez is a good manager -- his results at Granada were historic and persuading him to move to Espanyol was greeted as a significant success for the club -- and the players backed him. Meanwhile, the fans' anger was turned more towards the board than him.

"He's very close to the players," Joselu said this week. "I talk to him a lot. He's methodical, spectacular, a fantastic coach -- ideal for Espanyol."

There is no escaping the reality, though: Espanyol's position is dreadful. And while it does not feel as dramatic, nor so shocking for them to be down there as it does for Sevilla and Valencia to be, this is a big club: five times they have gone down, sure, but all five times they have come straight back up. The last time they were in the second division, relegated after 26 years in primera, and at the Camp Nou of all places, their fans weren't even there to see it: the pandemic prevented that.The last time they were in the second division, relegated after 26 years in primera, and at the Camp Nou of all places, their fans weren't even there to see it: the pandemic prevented that. They had been locked out with the team in the first division and by the time they were let in again, the team was back there. They have over 30,000 season-ticket holders. They also have an owner who claimed he was going to get them into the Champions League.

Instead, this is their truth -- and going down again so soon would be a gigantic blow.

The good thing is that so many others are just as badly off. There are 12 games left this season, in which the title race looks done and the drama is farther down. With Elche on 13 points having won only twice all season and virtually gone already, there are two relegation places still to be avoided and eight, possibly even nine, teams in danger of occupying them. The 10th, Celta, were in the bottom three before Christmas. Seven teams sit within a single game of the relegation zone. Just two points separate 19th from 14th. There are only six points between 19th and 11th.

Joselu had said before he went away to join up with the Spain squad that when he came back, a "war" would await, which is one way of putting it. Espanyol could not wish for anyone better to lead the fight than the man who has won more aerial duels than anyone in LaLiga and, with 12 goals, has scored more than anyone bar Enes Unal and Robert Lewandowski. When you look at the candidates to go down, when you try to work out who has enough to survive, Joselu is a key reason for Espanyol not to be pulled into pessimism.

Their problems have been at the other end, where they have the third-worst defence in primera. Mistakes, including goalkeeping errors, have been a recurring theme (although that has been improved since the winter window). This is not a team that ever really gets beaten badly. "We have lacked a bit of belief at times; we have to mature a bit, improve our concentration and ensure that there are fewer errors," Joselu says. In Sergi Darder, they have one of the league's outstanding midfielders, Martin Braithwaite has eight goals, and now they have Spain's latest star, quite literally.

Now, this doesn't mean forgetting where his responsibilities lie. Asked by one radio station this week to take a piece of paper and write on it what he really, really wanted from the rest of this season: a goal in the Nations League final with Spain or survival with Espanyol, Joselu replied that a piece of paper is big enough to write more than one thing on.

His contribution will be key. Will be? Has been.

Joselu's 12 goals aren't explained by sudden gluts or stat padding: they have come in 11 games. He scored at the Camp Nou and the Bernabeu. He scored in single goal wins against fellow strugglers Valladolid and Getafe. He got two against Cadiz and one against Valencia: both times Joselu put Espanyol into leads they then let slip, drawing both times. He rescued a point at Celta. He gave them a chance at Sevilla, only for the comeback to fall short. Only one of his 12 was irrelevant: a late consolation at Almeria.

And then, after 14 years waiting, and a long walk with his dog, he gave Spain a victory against Norway in just four minutes, a moment's madness before getting back to normal life. "We've had two weeks to reflect, to turn it 'round," Joselu said, "the next few games are vital."