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La Liga: A New Year Thriller in Catalonia!

Espanyol 2-2 Barcelona

After the opening 22 minutes of this La Liga encounter, the possession total read 81 per cent to 19 in favour of the league champions.

Yet possession is not always king in football, and when the league’s bottom club opened the scoring, the blue touch paper was well and truly lit for the latest version of the Catalan derby, which is rich in history as well as plenty of controversial moments.

 

Highlights of the game

In fact, if it hadn’t been for the fact this was a derby, it would surely have been an away banker.

After all, Espanyol had failed to win any of their past 20 derbies against Barcelona – a run stretching back over a decade – and had only scored in five of them.

What’s more, they were bottom of the table, failing to impress domestically and now on their third manager of the season as Pablo Machín was replaced before the New Year.

In his first match in charge, new boss and former Barca man Abelardo Fernandez received a warm welcome at the RCDE Stadium but Barca, chasing a landmark century of wins against Espanyol – their 99 league victories against them is a club record – were overwhelming favourites to create more La Liga 2020 highlights.

There were three changes for Espanyol in Abelardo’s first selection with captain Javi Lopez, defender Naldo and young winger Oscar Melendo all handed starting berths.

Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen had a tendon injury so summer signing Neto made his first league start, with Ivan Rakitic, Frenkie de Jong and Clement Lenglet also returning to the first XI.

Indeed, Rakitic may have given the visitors a dream start only to miscue his shot from the edge of the box.

As Barca controlled long spells, Espanyol proved a threat on the break. Bernardo Espinosa headed wide from a Marc Roca free-kick before the same player whipped in a 23rd-minute free-kick and David Lopez glanced home a header beyond the helpless Neto.

Barca had won their most recent Catalan derby when a Lionel Messi double secured a 2-0 win. And it was their inspirational captain again who lifted his side before the break.

He saw efforts saved and blocked, while Lenglet headed wide. Luis Suárez then struck the post after good work from the dangerous Sergi Roberto as Barcelona finished the half upping the pressure.

Arturo Vidal hits an equaliser at the start of second half during Barcelona's La Liga battle against derby rivals Espanyol
Barcelona players celebrate after Arturo Vidal scored an equaliser during the Catalan derby with Espanyol in La Liga

Sure enough, Barcelona, who replaced Rakitic with Arturo Vidal at half-time, were level five minutes after the restart.

Jordi Alba crossed from the left and Espanyol defenders carelessly left Suarez in acres of space and he promptly poked the ball past Diego Lopez.

Antoine Griezmann saw an effort blocked but the pressure was building. There was no surprise then when Suarez picked up a loose ball in the box and found Vidal – currently in dispute with the club over unpaid bonuses – who headed home.

Suarez was denied a quick third as Lopez palmed the ball over the bar and it seemed the turnaround was nearly complete. Yet there was to be a nervous final 15 minutes as two quick fouls worthy of yellow cards from young midfielder Frenkie de Jong saw the visitors reduced to 10 men.

Home substitute Wu Lei went close with a header and Neto had to be alert. Barcelona’s concern of conceding an equaliser was evident with manager Ernesto Valverde replacing Griezmann with a defender, Nelson Semedo.

You could not begrudge the scenes which arrived three minutes from time when the Chinese favourite earned himself a place in Catalan folklore with a dramatic equaliser.

Moments after Suarez had been kept out, Lei latched onto a pass from Matías Vargas and fired home a right-footed shot from a difficult angle to spark home pandemonium.

In becoming the first-ever Chinese player to score against Barcelona, so another piece of history had been written in the El Derbi Barceloni.

A new year thriller in Catalonia!

 

Key statistics

This was David Lopez’s first La Liga goal since May 2018.

Barcelona have conceded eight set-piece goals in La Liga this season, two more than in all of last season and double their total in 2017-18.

Suarez has scored nine La Liga goals against Espanyol. His other best hauls in the Spanish league are against Real Betis (10), Eibar (10) and Real Madrid (nine).

Suarez has been involved in each of Barca’s last 10 league goals (four goals and six assists).

Vidal has scored six La Liga goals this season – he has only started four times and is averaging a goal every 90 minutes in the league.

De Jong is the first Dutch player to be sent off for Barcelona in a La Liga match since Edgar Davids against Atletico Madrid in February 2004.

Former Barcelona playmaker Xavi Hernandez is the player with the most Catalan derby appearances ever (32), while his former teammate and current captain Messi has the most La Liga goals in the fixture with 22, including two hat-tricks and a four-goal haul in 2011/12.

This fixture has been played in LaLiga every year apart from the four seasons Espanyol spent in the second tier. Barça’s biggest victory came early, a 5-0 win in 1933/34, while older Espanyol fans will still recall their side’s record 6-0 success during the 1950/51 campaign.

 

What’s next?

A trip to minnows San Sebastian de los Reyes in the Copa del Rey is next on the agenda for Espanyol before they return to league action in a fortnight at Villarreal (January 19).

Barca now travel to Saudi Arabia to meet Atletico Madrid in the semi-final of the Spanish Super Cup. They are home to Granada next in La Liga the weekend after next.

 

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