Barça took a massive step towards a fifth league title in six years with a 0-1 victory over local rivals Espanyol at Cornellà-El Prat this afternoon. The home side put up a valiant fight to frustrate Barça but a controversial penalty awarded for a handball by Javi Lopez in the 77th minute was converted by Leo Messi to clinch the vital three points.
It was a typical hectic high-tempo local derby. Both teams started intensely with Barça moving the ball quickly while Espanyol, playing a 4-4-2, worked aggressively to close the play down. The first foul took just 50 seconds to arrive as Stuani brought down Fabregas and there would be four Espanyol fouls in the first ten minutes (in a total of 24 Espanyol fouls during the game) as Barça were not allowed to settle.
However, Barça managed to find an early attacking option in Dani Alves. Time and again the Brazilian found space to cross, the first time in the fourth minute found Neymar free at the far post but the striker’s header went straight at Kiko Casilla. Espanyol responded with a snap-shot wide from Sergio Garcia but then in the tenth minute Alves clipped the ball through to Messi who was played onside by a stray defender and Casilla had to be quick off his line to block the Argentinian’s effort. The next chance again fell to Messi after another Alves cross but Messi’s attempt to flick his header over Casilla also cleared the crossbar. Then in the 19th minute Xavi sent a pass up the right for Alves who whipped in a hard low cross which Neymar sprinting in couldn’t keep down from four yards out and the ball again cleared the bar.
José Manuel Pinto had little to do in Barça’s goal apart from dealing with back-passes until the first real threat on his goal came in the 22nd minute, Sergio Garcia delivered a magnificent pass into the penalty area but Pizzi drove over from near the corner of the goal area. There was another scare for Barça a minute later when Espanyol appealed for a penalty when Mascherano’s arm caught Javi Lopez across the face. Mascherano had jumped and missed a bouncing ball and as he tried to turn to recover his arm brought Lopez down. Referee Clos Gomez ignored Espanyol’s protests though it seems fair to say there was no intention from Mascherano and Lopez had little chance of arriving to the ball.
The game turned scrappy, and after a lively start from Neymar he began to show his frustration with the number of biting tackles. Stuani and Colotto were both booked after fouls on the Brazilian and it appeared that Espanyol were targeting him in an attempt to wind him up. However, Simao didn’t seem to care who he fouled and he was very lucky not to see a card for fouls on Alves and Xavi in the space of a minute.
There was little penalty-area action in this period until the 39th minute when Alba sent Neymar into the area but Casilla was again out well and Neymar clipped the ball across the goal and wide, though Hector Moreno running back was close to knocking the ball in his own goal. Espanyol ended the first half with there strongest spell, winning their only three corners of the game in a five-minute spell of pressure. Pinto was still not tested though there was a slight moment of misunderstanding when Piqué nearly got caught in two minds where to head the ball. Busquets also saw Barça’s only yellow card in this spell after Alves’s awful pass to Sergio Garcia left the defensive midfielder little choice but to bring the ex-blaugrana striker down.
Espanyol were hindered early in the second half when Moreno was forced off with back pain to be replaced by Sidnei. There continued to be little danger near Barça’s goal as Piqué and Mascherano both put in creditable performances at the back. However, there was also little from Barça in attack now apart from a timid penalty appeal when Pedro went down after a challenge from Javi Lopez.
At this point a goalless draw was looking a distinct possibility but Espanyol began to tire as the game moved into the final twenty-five minutes. Javier Aguirre brought on Alex in place of Pizzi in an attempt to bolster the midfield but Barça were pushing further forward and began to win a series of corners. From one Pedro flicked a near-post header straight at Casilla, then after another corner was cleared Messi made a brilliant control to bring the ball down and turn past Sidnei, Fabregas’s back-heel then seemed to present a golden chance for Messi but Alex and Colotto slid in to tackle.
The game was coming to life and Espanyol had their only chance of the second half when Alex got into the space left by Alves but the Espanyol sub hesitated in front of goal before shooting poorly straight at Pinto. However, it was Barça that was threatening more and in the 74th minute Xavi sent in a corner from the left, Busquets supplied the flicked near-post header and Piqué arrived with a stabbed volley but the ball flew out off the crossbar.
Time was running out but then with 13 minutes remaining Barça got the vital break. The crosses from Alves had dried up in the second half while Neymar had also been fairly quiet apart from getting kicked by Javi Lopez. However, Neymar had the last laugh when he controlled Alves’s lob into the area on his chest (with quite possibly the help of his arm), the ball hit Lopez on the arm and Clos Gomez had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Messi again had a high-tension penalty to convert and he coolly sent Casilla the wrong way.
Tata Martino brought on Iniesta in place of Pedro while Aguirre made his final substitution, replacing Simao with Cordoba as Espanyol needed to come out now. However, Barça took advantage of the spaces, first with Neymar, now on the right, firing a stinging shot straight at Casilla, then, after Alexis came on for Neymar, Iniesta lobbed a pass over the defence for Messi who tried to clip the ball over the advancing Casilla but the Espanyol keeper handled outside the area and Clos Gomez had no option but to send the keeper off.
Espanyol had used up their substitutions so Javi Lopez took over in goal and he had time to make a very decent save to deny Alexis. However, there was no way back for Espanyol’s ten men and their frustration was shown by an awful late tackle on Fabregas by Victor Sanchez. For Clos Gomez this was only worthy of a yellow card, only Espanyol’s fourth, which was quite remarkable considering some of the late tackles seen by the home team.
The victory make the bruises worth it. This was certainly not a vintage Barça performance but it was highly encouraging to see how the team stood up to Espanyol’s aggression while maintaining concentration and showing great character. Neymar looked like he might lose it for a moment but, considering the punishment he endured, he deserves credit for not retaliating more. Barça now await the results tonight at the new San Mames and at the Bernabeu, whatever happens elsewhere it has been a good day for Barça with an extremely important victory dedicated to Victor Valdés.
Espanyol: Casilla; Javi Lopez, Colotto, Moreno (Sidnei m47), Fuentes; Stuani, Victor Sanchez, David Lopez, Simao (Cordoba m78); Sergio Garcia, Pizzi (Alex m65).
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Alves 7, Piqué 8, Mascherano 7.5, Alba 7.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 7, Fabregas 6 (Sergi Roberto m90, –); Pedro 6.5 (Iniesta m78, 7), Messi 7.5, Neymar 6.5 (Alexis m81, 6).
Goal: m77 Messi (pen) 0-1.
Yellow cards: m26 Stuani, m35 Colotto, m45+1 Busquets, m75 Javi Lopez, m86 Victor Sanchez.
Red card: Casilla m83.