Barça earned a splendid 0-2 victory over Espanyol this afternoon to move five points clear of Real Madrid who play tomorrow at Celta. Luis Enrique’s men gave a dazzling first half performance with goals from Neymar Jr and Messi in the opening 25 minutes. The second half proved more complicated after Jordi Alba’s unnecessary red card but Barça’s ten men held on to the lead for the remaining thirty-five minutes to take three very important points.
There were just two changes to the team that beat Paris Saint Germain on Tuesday with Bravo back in place of Ter Stegen and Rafinha coming in for Rakitic. Right from the start it was clear that Barça were tuned in for the task with an early combination between Suárez and Messi that sent Neymar into the left of the area but his cross hit a defender and deflected straight to Espanyol keeper Kiko Casilla.
Messi was immediately coming infield to combine with Busquets and Iniesta to good effect. In the 6th minute the Argentinian sent a fine diagonal pass into the area towards Alba, a defender put in a challenge and the ball broke free giving Suárez a chance with a header but Casilla made a good reaction save low to his right. Then five minutes later Messi sent in another pass behind the Espanyol defence and the stretching Neymar poked the ball narrowly over the bar.
It was all Barça with an early possession of close to 80%. The passes were fast, crisp and accurate while the movement and understanding between the players was top class. There were several moments of skill with volleyed passes, neat flicks and some lovely one-touch stuff. When the first goal came in the 17th minute it seemed somewhat inevitable but it was still masterfully executed. After a build-up of around twenty passes, Messi sent another long pass into the area for Alba who crossed first time, Suárez let the ball run, knowing Neymar was arriving to stab it home from six yards.
Barça continued to bamboozle the home team with quick possession football, so much so that when Espanyol did get the ball they lost it again quickly to Barça’s energetic press. A second goal arrived in the 25th minute and it was as intricately created as the first. Suárez made one of his runs to the wing to receive near the right corner flag before playing the ball back inside to Iniesta who flipped a pass over the defence for Suárez who had made a horizontal run into the area from the right. The Uruguayan just beat the offside and sent a low cross across the goalmouth and Messi controlled well at the far post before shooting from a tight angle low past Casilla and inside the far post.
With the score at 0-2 Espanyol finally managed a shot but Caicedo hooked over from 15 yards and there was a brief spell when the home side managed a bit of possession. Barça, however, might be said to have got pretty close to footballing perfection if such a thing is possible. Even when there was an error such as Busquets’s in the 36th minute Mascherano was on hand with an excellent piece of covering. If Neymar had scored five minutes before the break after Suárez’s delightful flick, it would have left a fairer reflection on Barça’s first-half dominance, but Casilla saved from the Brazilian’s volley to maintain a glimmer of hope for Los Periquitos.
Neymar had another chance to increase Barça’s lead early in the second half. Busquets won a loose ball and played the Brazilian into the area but Casilla came out well and managed to block the shot with his head. Then with Barça seemingly coasting to victory in the 54th minute Alba kicked the ball away when not awarded a corner and referee Mateu Lahoz showed him the yellow card. As Alba ran past he said something, ( -“Always the same, always me” – according to the player in a post-match interview), and Mateu pulled a straight red card and Alba was off.
Barça reorganised with Busquets moving back to central defence with Mascherano at left-back, but the team changed nothing in its attitude and continued to attack. Messi was soon bursting into the area after Suárez’s back-heel but his shot took a deflection off Moreno and hit the near post. Then in the 63rd minute Iniesta played a clever pass into the left of the area for Suárez who crossed but Neymar couldn’t control his volley, sending the ball narrowly over.
Luis Enrique then took off Rafinha, bringing on Mathieu to play at left back with Mascherano and Busquets reverting to their original positions. Iniesta dropped deeper, closer to Busquets, leaving Messi as the link to Neymar and Suárez. Espanyol began to edge forward but shots from Lucas and Caicedo failed to hit the target. Claudio Bravo didn’t need to make a save until the 69th minute when Sergio Garcia forced his way into the area but Mascherano did enough to pressure the Espanyol striker into a weakish shot that was comfortable for the Barça keeper.
Espanyol brought on substitutes Salva Sevilla, Stuani and Montañes but Barça’s ten men continued to look pretty comfortable. There was one scare when Lucas robbed Alves but Stuani fired his shot over. Generally speaking, however, Barça looked solid defensively with Bravo dealing well with any crosses. At the other end there was one marvelous run from Neymar, dribbling from left to right to find a route into the area he then unselfishly squared to Messi who had his shot blocked.
With ten minutes remaining Rakitic replaced Suárez and with the clock ticking down Espanyol had their best chance when Stuani broke into the area but Bravo made an excellent left-handed save to stop the low shot. There was still time for Xavi to come on for his 500th league appearance for Barça and right at the end Mateu Lahoz completed a controversial refereeing performance with two yellow cards in quick succession to send off Espanyol’s Moreno.
Espanyol: Casilla; Arbilla, Álvaro Gonzalez, Héctor Moreno, Duarte; Lucas Vazquez, Abraham (Salva Sevilla m61), Cañas, Víctor Álvarez (Montañes m74); Caicedo (Stuani m70), Sergio García.
Barça: Bravo 8; Alves 7.5, Piqué 7.5, Mascherano 8, Alba 5; Rafinha 7 (Mathieu m64, 6.5), Busquets 7.5, Iniesta 8 (Xavi m87, –); Messi 8.5, Suárez 8 (Rakitic m80, 7), Neymar 7.5.
Goals: m17 Neymar 0-1, m25 Messi 0-2.
Yellow cards: m22 Sergio Garcia, m54 Alba, m58 Alves, m62 Arbilla, m72 Lucas, m80 Cañas, m83 Busquets, m91 Moreno
Red cards: m54 Alba, m91 Moreno