After arguably the most important week in Barça's season, Tata Martino would probably have wished for a slightly easier game then a Catalan derby. With both Atlético and Real Madrid playing later, today was a good chance for Barcelona to apply some pressure but Espanyol were never going to be pushovers.
Shots on Target
The derby between the two Catalan clubs was always going to be feisty and this was shown from minute one as Christian Stuani hacked down Cesc Fàbregas. The mood was set and both clubs knew they would be slogging it out for the victory. The first chance of the game fell to Barcelona as Neymar was picked out by Dani Alves but the header from the winger was too soft and easily saved by Espanyol keeper Kiko Casilla.
Just one minute later, it was Espanyol's turn to attack. Ex-Barça player Sergio Garcia broke clear of the defence but blasted his shot wide of the diving Pinto and wide of the post. The game was being played at a very high place, largely dictated by Espanyol's desire to push Barça high and not allow them to get into their natural groove. After a couple of niggly fouls between both sides it was Messi who found room in the penalty area. That space was rapidly closed down by Casilla and Messi couldn't flick the ball over the outrushing keeper.
Neymar routinely became the outport of Barcelona's attacks as Javi López failed to mark him close enough. In the 12th minute, the Brazilian was again in on goal but perhaps showed signs of being slightly unconfident and looked to find Messi instead of shooting himself. He did fins his trike partner but by that time Messi was surrounded by Espanyol players and the attack fizzled out.
The end-to-end nature of the game continued throughout the first half with both Neymar and Pizzi being guilty of not being clinical enough and wasting potential game-winning chances. Sergio Garcia looked to be a real threat in the final third and in the 18th minute he worked the ball smartly to Pizzi but the Portuguese blasted the ball high over the bar. The miss was perhaps trumped by Neymar just a minute later. Dani Alves did fantastically well to work himself into space for a cross. He fizzed a low ball across the box but as Neymar slid in he got under the ball and it flew over the bar from just two yards out.
During the first half, you would do well to find a whole minute of play where the ball remained in the middle of the field. The play seemed to switch from Barça attack to Espanyol attack and back again in an instant. Xavi, Busquets and Fàbregas really struggled to get a hold of the ball and start dictating the tempo.
After another missed Pizzi opportunity and a save by Pinto that saw him fall into the goal but the ball stay on the line, Espanyol had a very legitimate claim for a penalty. Javi López got clear of a back-tracking Neymar before Javier Mascherano came to help his teammate. The midfielder turned defender seemed to lose track of the Espanyol right-back and a trailing arm caught López. The referee deemed it to be accidental and after both players received treatment the game continued.
Every minute that went on, Atlético and Real fans were becoming more and more hopeful that Barça would drop points. Both teams had great opportunities to score and both teams fell at the final hurdle. At half time, they went in level having a combined total of thirteen attempts on goal.
The second half started with a slower tempo then the first as Espanyol looked to solidify their defence. Andrés Iniesta appeared to be getting ready to come on and the game was calling out for him to provide a touch of class. Martino decided against it and Iniesta returned to the bench. Pedro began to get more involved in the game and in the 56th minute it was Barça's turn to appeal for a penalty. Pedro broke clear before falling to the ground, the referee decided against it in what would have been a very soft penalty.
It looked to be an all too familiar scene for Culés as Barça carved out chance after chance but a well organised defence prevented them from breaking the deadlock. Xavi saw his header saved, Cesc saw his bicycle kick blocked and Piqué hit the bar from a corner. The game headed into the final fifteen minutes looking like it was going to stay at 0-0. But then Barça were giving a lifeline.
The ball was crossed towards Neymar and the Brazilian jumped with López. Neymar controlled with his chest, although many will argue it hit his arm, before being blocked by López. The referee spotted it and pointed to the spot. After scoring two penalties last week in the Clásico, Messi continued his scoring streak by calmly slotting the ball into left of the goal. 1-0 Barça.
Iniesta finally entered the field in the 78th minute as Barcelona looked to keep hold of the ball and not lose their precious one goal lead. The game was practically won when Casilla rushed out of his box and handled a Messi effort. A red card for the keeper and López donned the gloves for the remaining seven minutes.
After a couple of impressive saves from the stand-in keeper, the final whistle came and Barça earned a hugely important win in what was arguably their hardest away trip left. Barcelona can now focus on their Tuesday Champions League tie at home to La Liga rivals Atlético Madrid.
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