FC Barcelona slumped to a surprise draw in the Catalan derby against Espanyol, conceding a late equaliser to fall five points behind Real Madrid in the race for La Liga. Cesc Fabregas opened the scoring with a header from the edge of the area (thanks in part to a goalkeeping error from Alvarez) but Espanyol continued to press the Blaugrana and their headed equaliser was well deserved. Simply put, Barcelona were not good enough.
Pep Guardiola decided to field the same XI that started the last league match in December, the Clasico against Real Madrid. It appeared as though the players on the pitch are the best he can field at the moment, but the performance was far different to the one a month ago at the Bernabeu.
The opposition operated in much the same way as Real did, pressuring high up the pitch with a front three making life extremely difficult for the Barcelona backline while dropping plenty of men back in defense to nullify the creativity of the Blaugrana attack. It worked a treat and Espanyol had the first chance of the match through Joan Verdu as early as the fifth minute.
Espanyol sent in a dangerous cross and it was met firmly by Joan Verdu at the far post and with Valdes at the other post, it appeared a certain goal. However, Valdes scrambled across to parry the header away, a truly stunning save by the Catalan, even if the rebound did fall to Verdu. Getting his second opportunity to score he fired it back across goal, but Gerard Pique was in the right place to block the shot and save another goal.
That was not to say Barcelona were playing badly per se, in fact, they were forcing mistakes as well, with Cristian Alvarez making a terrible pass to gift possession to Lionel Messi. It was the last thing you would like to do as an Espanyol keeper and Messi unselfishly passed it to Cesc who fired in the tap-in only for the referee to halt play for a handball. It was a great spot, as Messi had (unintentionally) handled the ball with his second touch, although the yellow card was pretty harsh.
However, Barcelona would not be denied for long. Dani Alves centred the ball from the right-hand side and there to meet it was Cesc Fabregas, who put all of his power into a header from 18 yards out. It looked a "saveable" effort for Alvarez, but the keeper couldn’t get across quickly enough to tip it round the post and it crept into the corner of the net. Barcelona were ahead.
The remainder of the half was a cagey affair, with Espanyol creating a fair amount of half chances, mostly shots from outside the area, but it appeared – to me at least – that Barcelona had things under control. In fact, they might have had a man advantage heading into the second half after a malicious challenge by Romaric, but a yellow card was an adequate punishment according to the referee. Given other high-profile events today involving red cards, it could have been given...
The second half was much the same as the first; Barcelona had more possession, but created very little in the way of clear-cut chances. Dani Alves had a goal disallowed for offside, and rightly so, but aside from that, Barcelona were contained by the Espanyol defense. It wasn’t until the introduction of Pedro on 71 minutes (for the criminally confused Alexis Sanchez) that Barcelona looked threatening. Even then, it was only in fits and bursts.
For example, mere minutes after he was brought on, Pedro sent in a cross that led to Messi hitting the post. Perhaps Barcelona were going to build up some momentum, but then Alvarez got injured. The Espanyol keeper (and captain) pulled up before booting the ball into touch with either a torn or hopefully strained left calf.
Espanyol committed more players forward in search of an equaliser, and Pochettino brought on Alvaro Vazquez for a midfielder in what turned out to be a crucial substitution. Yet again Espanyol sent in a cross from the right by-line, and Thievy flicked it on, past Carles Puyol to Alvaro who could make no mistake with the finish. Barcelona had slipped up yet again away from home.
A late flurry from Messi to set up Pique for a shot that cannoned off the bar was not enough, even if Pedro’s follow up attempt was clearly blocked with a hand. It just wasn’t to be, and that was the players fault for not showing enough urgency. Sure, the referee should have made the decision to give a penalty, but it will only go down as an important incident because of the lack of effort shown by the team in the preceding 90 minutes.
Next up is Osasuna in the Copa on Thursday, and Barcelona hold a 4-0 advantage from the first leg. As if that is any consolation at the moment. After all, this may well go down as the night Barcelona lost the title.