Espanyol came close to frustrating Barça in the local derby at Camp Nou tonight, but with twenty minutes to go Alexis Sanchez scored the only goal of the game after an assist from Neymar Jr to take Barça to 34 points from 12 games and guarantee top spot in La Liga for another week.
Tata Martino picked the same team that started in Milan last week with the exception of Martin Montoya at left back in place of Adriano, which may signal he is settling on his idea of Barça’s best XI. Espanyol coach Javier Aguirre surprised, however, by leaving out Simao, Stuani, Pizzi and Mattioni while giving a chance to the out-of-favour Thievy and Gabriel Torje.
It was the Frenchman Thievy who had the first shot of the game which was blocked by Montoya in the second minute then soon after Torje shot wide from 25 yards. Barça’s first chance came after an early switch of wings from Neymar and Alexis. Neymar played the ball infield from the right to Messi and after a touch from Iniesta the ball came to Alexis on the left but Espanyol’s keeper Kiko Casilla dived quickly to his left to save the Chilean’s effort.
Most of the early danger came from Neymar who began the game well. He was unlucky to get called offside after Xavi’s through-ball though Casilla was quickly out of his area to clear just in case. However, as Barça took control of the ball Espanyol worked hard to close space with Thievy and Torje dropping back to support a narrow midfield line of five which shielded the back four and forced Barça to play the ball wide. The result was lots of crosses from Alves and a couple from Montoya from the left, but neither Barça full-back found much accuracy. Xavi’s corners were equally disappointing with the Espanyol defence winning all the headers.
Espanyol continued to frustrate and it wasn’t until the 28th minute that Barça created another chance. Iniesta played a cross-field pass for Alves’s forward run and the Brazilian headed the ball nicely for Alexis who volleyed his shot off target against Fuentes. Espanyol hit back on the counter, first Torje had time to shoot but Valdés got behind the ball well, then in the 35th minute Alves failed to cut out Thievy’s pass, allowing Victor Sanchez the chance to put the visitors ahead but Valdés did brilliantly to save with his feet.
After the scare Barça ended the first half well. Xavi fired narrowly over from 25 yards after Neymar worked some space. Then from a corner in the 43rd minute the ball was only cleared as far as Iniesta who smashed a shot through a forest of bodies but Casilla followed the ball well to punch the ball away, the ball came 35 yards out to Alves who, after a quick one-two with Busquets, cracked in a low shot that bounced out off Casilla’s right-hand post. It was a good end from Barça to a disappointing first-half though Espanyol will have been encouraged by arriving to the break with the score goalless.
Barça seemed to raise the pace slightly in the second half but Espanyol disciplined defence continued to cut off the final pass, get in the way of shots and thwart the dribbles from Messi and Iniesta. In the 54th minute a Barça cross finally found a Barça head with Alves delivering from the right and Messi charging in and jumping to meet the ball but Casilla sprang to his right to make an excellent save. Xavi was under more pressure from the defence when he headed wide from Alexis’s cross soon after. Then from another Alves cross the ball came long to Neymar who brought the ball back inside past Raul Rodriguez and Abraham before letting fly with a wicked curling shot that just failed to creep inside the far post.
It was beginning to look like Espanyol might hold out as they were limiting Barça’s number of chances, but the breakthrough finally came in the 68th minute. Busquets found Neymar in a bit of space on the left but as he entered the area Sidnei and Raul Rodriguez came across to block his way. The Brazilian managed to pass the ball through both Espanyol defenders’ legs and Alexis was sliding in at the far post to score yet another vital goal.
Espanyol changed shape and tried to push forward in search of an equalizer but Barça began to exploit the spaces left. Alexis supplied a great ball through for Neymar and Casilla was fortunate not to be seen pulling the Brazilian’s arm as he would surely have been sent off for preventing a probable goal. There had to be one more chance for the visitors and it came in the 79th minute when Sergio Garcia got the wrong side of Montoya but then blazed his shot just over the bar. Besides that there were hopeful efforts from Espanyol’s substitutes Lanzarote with a header wide and Cordoba with a shot blocked by Piqué but Valdés was not troubled again. Barça’s subs Fabregas and Pedro combined for the best late chance for Barça but Casilla did well to stop Pedro’s shot with his foot.
Espanyol’s disciplined defensive lines made things difficult for Barça tonight but perhaps we should also take the heavy fixture list into account. Tonight’s game was the fifth in 14 days and the third in the last 7 but since the draws with Osasuna and Milan we now have three straight wins over Madrid, Celta and Espanyol. We have extended our consecutive home wins record in the league to 20 games, stretching back to October 2012 and the 2-2 draw with Madrid, and we are still unbeaten after 17 games with Tata in charge. All in all we can be pretty satisfied. What the heck! Even Alexis is coming good. That’s seven goals now in the league from the Chilean and after the injury-time winner over Sevilla, the brilliant chip against Madrid and tonight’s only goal, he’s getting a handy knack of popping up with vital strikes which we can only hope continues.
Barça: Valdes 7; Alves 6, Piqué 7, Mascherano 6.5, Montoya 6.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 6, Iniesta 6.5 (Fabregas m86, 6.5); Alexis 6.5 (Pedro m83, 6), Messi 6.5, Neymar 7.
Espanyol: Kiko Casilla; Raúl Rodriguez, Sidnei, Hector Moreno, Fuentes; David López, Abraham (Lanzarote m83), Víctor Sánchez; Thievy (Cordoba m62), Sergio García, Torje.
Goals: m68 Alexis 1-0.
Yellow cards: m45 Fuentes, m67 Victor Sanchez, m77 Mascherano, m90 Lanzarote.