Club Focus – Barcelona – Espanyol show grit to deny Barca in city derby

In a largely unspectacular but passionate derby encounter, Barcelona were held to a stalemate by city neighbours Espanyol. Yaya Toure’s pre-match assessment that this would be Barca’s toughest game of the run-in proved to be accurate as el Periquitos parked a large blue and white bus in the middle of Barcelona’s road to the Primera Liga title.

Coach Pep Guardiola again plumped for starting Dani Alves in an advanced role alongside Lionel Messi and Pedro. However, after an admirable performance last week, the Brazilian full-back displayed a moment of typical rashness by getting sent off with half an hour still to play. However Espanyol appeared to resign themselves to a draw as neither side went on to create many more chances. Midfielder Xavi Hernandez afterwards exclaimed how well Espanyol had deployed close-marking tactics, and the result also proved that even the usually uncontainable Messi can be kept quiet on occasions. With two valuable points squandered and Real Madrid securing a solid 2-0 victory over Valencia on Sunday, Guardiola appears to have been right in urging caution as it appears the title could still go either way.

The blaugrana had to quickly turn their attentions to Europe, as thanks to a certain ill-timed yet inescapable volcanic eruption the players were forced to travel to Milan by road for their third meeting of the season with Internazionale. After a warm-down training session on Sunday the players set off for the first part of a gruelling journey, which cannot be viewed as ideal preparation for such a vital match. However, midfielder Sergio Busquets put a more positive spin on the situation, suggesting that: “maybe spending so long together on a coach will bring us closer and help us focus on beating Inter. It’s a long time on the road and we’re not really used to that, but with music and a film or two, I’m sure the trip won’t seem so long.” Guardiola also concluded that, whilst not ideal, he would rather travel the 1000km journey to play in a Champions League semi-final than stay in Spain.

It is somewhat surprising that, at the time of writing, Inter Coach Jose Mourinho has yet to use the travelling situation as part of any mind games in the lead up to the clash. In fact, the outspoken Portuguese tactician has remained fairly quiet as the match approaches, perhaps because Barcelona are one of the few teams that even Mourinho cannot allude to being over-confident about defeating. Whilst being careful not to suggest the blaugrana are favourites for the tie, Mourinho also made the fair assertion that: “They [Barcelona] are as good as they were in November, but we are much better than we were in November.” However, Mourinho knows that Barcelona were vastly superior over the two legs in the group stages earlier on in the season, and appears to have been choosing his pre-match words carefully.

With the technical and physical attributes that Inter possess, many will see this match as possibly the toughest test Barcelona have faced so far this season. It will be intriguing to see how the smaller players such as Xavi, Messi and Pedro will cope with the kind of defending the Nerazzurri displayed against Chelsea, much of which was tantamount to assault. Being such key figures, if any of the aforementioned players are successfully denied the ball then Barca will struggle to create chances. However, as Mourinho warned, give them too much of the ball and Inter “have already lost”.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger this week moved to renounce the reports that Barcelona and Arsenal have held any form of talks regarding Cesc Fabregas. In doing so, Wenger also made the controversial suggestion that in joining Barca, Fabregas would be taking a step down to a two-horse league in “complete disarray”. However, what the French tactician appears to be failing to consider is the desire Fabregas will have to win trophies, and judging by recent form such opportunities will be far more frequent with the blaugrana – a club that the player also unquestionably still holds dear to his heart. However, Wenger’s frustration is understandable, and in any case it still remains a contentious issue if Guardiola genuinely sees Fabregas as an integral part of his blue and red jigsaw.

Despite a tight squad and the long coach journey, Barcelona remain upbeat and show little signs of tiredness in what is a frantic period of the season. However, if the blaugrana can mirror the kind of performance they showed at the fortress that is the Bernabeu then a consecutive Champions League trophy is far from unachievable.

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