FC Barcelona will be hoping to record their third successive win and maintain their lead at the top of La Liga tomorrow evening when they make the short distance across town to face city rivals, RCD Espanyol at the RCDE Stadium. The Catalan derby might not be as publicised as El Clasico, but for the Blaugrana, a trip across the city has often been more difficult than a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu in recent seasons.
Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration as Espanyol have only taken points off their neighbours once in the past five years, but in terms of the physicality and pressure that Barcelona face, this is a very tough fixture indeed. This season promises to be no exception. With the title race closer than ever, Espanyol would relish the opportunity to be the ones to truly end Barça’s hopes of a “three-peat” and their form this season has been impressive.
While they may be out of the race to claim a European qualification berth, they are five points clear of their nearest challenger in 9th place, and if results go their way in the final few weeks of the season they could easily climb up to 8th – which would represent their highest finish since 2011. Their home form in particular has been a highlight; Espanyol have lost just four matches at home thus far this campaign and if they can keep it that way by the final whistle tomorrow, they might just end Luis Enrique’s title dreams.
Even with a UEFA Champions League semi-final to contend with in midweek, Real Madrid are heavy favourites to dispatch Valencia in the 4.15pm CET kick-off. Despite resting a litany of stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, in midweek, Real smashed six past Deportivo La Coruna at the Riazor and for the moment, Zinedine Zidane’s side are showing no signs of a decline after losing El Clasico.
If results go as expected, Barcelona will be three points behind the league leaders by the time they kick-off in Catalunya and the question remains whether the Blaugrana can cope with the pressure and begin to show some consistency away from home.
The big news ahead of the derby is that Neymar will be available to make his return from suspension. The midweek thrashing of Osasuna represented the final match of his three-game ban for clapping and with that unfortunate moment behind him, one can be sure that Neymar will be the target of some… rough treatment… from the Espanyol players.
It comes with the territory when you are considered one of the world’s very best and much has been made of how Lionel Messi responded to the targeting he experienced at the Bernabeu last weekend. The Argentine used the knocks and the bumps as motivation to respond with the ball at his feet and of course he ended up having the last laugh as he presented his Blaugrana jersey to the Santiago Bernabeu crowd. The issue that some have with Neymar is that he too often responds with his mouth – or worse, with a similar kick of his own – and that it typically gets him in trouble, either with a yellow card or something like the ban he recently received.
There are times when he too uses the anger in a productive fashion. Heck, one could argue that the Paris Saint-Germain was an example of that as Neymar took his frustration and channelled it into a performance that dragged his team to victory and progression. As he returns from suspension, let’s hope we see more of that Neymar tomorrow, and less of the Neymar that put himself in a compromising position against some of the most inconsistent and incompetent officials in the sport.
Aside from Neymar’s return, there really isn’t too much else to consider from a team news perspective. Carles Alena is likely to return to B team duty as Neymar should just take his place in the squad – and at that stage, Enrique will be selecting his starting line-up from pretty much the same 18 as he has for the past few fixtures.
Samuel Umtiti, Andres Iniesta, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto can be expected to return to the line-up as I suspect that Enrique will return to the same 4-3-3 that defeated Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Of course, Neymar will replace Paco Alcacer in the frontline, but tactically the blueprint will remain the same. If line-ups were picked on form, there would be a question mark around whether Paco Alcacer could remain in the attack ahead of Luis Suarez, but expect the Uruguayan to retain his place despite his recent goal drought.
In Pablo Piatti, Espanyol have their own diminutive Argentine who both scores and creates goals. Piatti has reached double figures for goals and actually has one more assist to his name than Lionel Messi in domestic competition at least, so Barcelona will need to be wary of the threat that he will pose alongside his usual partner in crime, Gerard Moreno. The ex-Villarreal forward has blossomed at Espanyol under Quique Sanchez Flores and with 12 goals to his name, Moreno ranks as the fourth-highest Spanish goalscorer in the division this season.
In terms of team news, Hernan Perez returns to the fold for Espanyol after two games on the sideline through injury while Victor Alvarez and Javi Lopez have also been named to the squad in place of Jose Antonio Reyes and Andres Melendo.
FC Barcelona 4–1 RCD Espanyol – 18th December 2016 – La Liga
Luis Suarez was the man of the match in this comfortable derby win, as he provided an assist to go along with a brace, as Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi got the other goals in a blowout victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Espanyol (4-2-3-1): Diego Lopez; J. Lopez, D. Lopez, Reyes, Aaron; Fuego, Sanchez; Perez, Moreno, Piatti; Caicedo
A hard-fought away win; 3-0 to the Blaugrana after a tight first-half with Espanyol eventually reduced to 10 men.