Barcelona’s first match of 2016 saw the Blaugrana travel to their city neighbours Espanyol for the fiercer Catalan Derbyand their title hopes suffered a big blow on Saturday as they were held to a goalless stalemate against Espanyol at Cornella-El Prat while Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez failed to click into gear. Meanwhile Atletico Madrid moved to points clear of Barcelona to clinch the La Liga top spot after defeating Levante 1-0.
Espanyol unexpectedly started the brighter of the two neighbours, successfully closing down the Barcelona defenders whenever they got a chance and forcing some mistakes at the backline whereas Barcelona took some time to get into their groove as usual.
Certainly, the focus was on the lethal front three of Neymar, Suarez and Messi. The most Interesting part of Barcelona’s tactics was Suarez primarily operating from right wing, while Lionel Messi filling in Suarez’s usual central attacking role. The Uruguayan despite losing his original role saw plenty of balls but somehow struggled to create consistent threat as he does always. The closest chance he got was a whipped cross that Jordi Alba deflected wide.
On the other hand, Messi in a central role was dropping deeper regularly to collect more of the ball and tried a few solo runs at the Espanyol defence, but whenever he did ignite a threatening run, the Espanyol defenders were all around him pulling him down by hook or crook and the referee had to show more than one yellow card to create a balance in physicality.
The feisty atmosphere was increasingly growing and it was eventually threatening to boil over the match. The bookings appeared in abundance and anytime a player went to ground, the fans in the stand were up off their seat to show their protest by waving hands.
With only 23 minutes in the match, the first demonstration of fighting among the players was there. When Mascherano was preparing for a corner, he pushed Alvaro Gonzalez. An arm into the chest saw yellow card for both of them but when the referee was jotting down the offending players’ names, the two players once again met with each other. Then came Sergio Busquets to shove González back as the players already were huddling around the referee but Jose Luis Gonzalez handled the situation quite well and the minds very soon went back to taste the thrilling football.
As the Catalan derby progressed, it seemed Espanyol would be the first team to score at their home. A corner was suddenly drilled and the quick flick on required an exceptional save from Claudio Bravo. The Chilean managed to get low and deflect the ball while Gerard Pique slides the ball away from the goal line to neutralize the threat.
Barcelona’s best chance of first half came when Messi with his moment of brilliance set the ball down for a dangerous free kick but the ball curled up and over the wall before hitting the crossbar ahead of the break.
Finally the referee blew half time whistle and in a relatively even fight, Espanyol looked the happier team not to concede any goal.
Not at all happy with his boy’s first half performance, the evidence of a halftime vocal tonic from Luis Enriquewas clearly displayed at the very start of the second half. Barcelona looked brighter and like the beginning of the first half, all the action was coming from the desperate visitors.
Enrique decided to switched back Suarez to his more natural central position and it was certainly a good move. It was only four minutes after the break; Barcelona finally got the ball in the net thanks to Suarez. An aerial ball was taken down nicely by the Barca number nine as he managed to slide it across the box to Andres Iniesta. The veteran midfielder make no mistake to slot it into the net but unfortunately the linesmen had already showed the flag up as Suarez had drifted offside.
Six minutes gone and the ball yet again over the top but this time Suarez appeared onside. In a unique tangle between the striker and the goalkeeper, Suarez somehow managed to get round Pau only to find himself at a difficult angle and watched his shot find the post.
It was just under twenty minutes left on the clock; Barca boss Enrique was desperate to find the net, so he made his first change as Ivan Rakitic was replaced by for Sergi Roberto. The Croatian had played his part really well but Enirique wanted more fluidity in the centre of the pitch.
Neymar, after being surprisingly quiet all match, finally managed to get his first shot away in 76th minute. Neymar found Jordi Alba’s cross and the Brazilian maestro did have all the time he needed to take it down and strike but maybe he was unaware of the surrounding to go for a scissor kick. The effort was not enough to beat the goalkeeper and easily saved.
The clock eventually ticked over the 80 minute stop and the home supporters were already sensed a great hard fought result on the horizon. As a matter of fact, it had been over a year since Barcelona had suffered a goalless stalemate and Espanyol were desperately pulling down all the hatches to see off an inevitable Barca push.
However, the tornado of pressure remained more of a gust and Barcelona had no other choice but to settle for a draw. The home fans were in a wild celebration mood but the away supporters left disappointed as their men never really got going despite looking dangerous throughout the match.
Actually even inside the last 10 minutes, there was a mere possibility that Barca would steal the points at the end as Messi unexpectedly sent a free-kick wide with Sergio Busquets had been clattered and in the two minutes of injury time also, it was the home team doing all the attacking, But Marco Asensio’s cross remained just too long for Javi Lopez, although it didn’t matter as the home crowds were happy enough to celebrate a well-fought point.
Unfortunately for the second year running, Barcelona started the year slipping points. However, this time the point loss is far less dramatic than last year’s one-goal shock defeat against Real Sociedad at Anoeta.
Meanwhile, under the coaching of Constantin Galca, who took charge replacing Sergio Gonzalez at the end of last year, Espanyol had a simple clear plan. They followed it for the entire match, denying Barcelona any space, working very hard and sometimes even playing dirty.