x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Barcelona leave for Abu Dhabi on a high

Zlatan Ibrahimovic saves Barcelona's blushes against city rivals Espanyol as they set off for the Club World Cup.

Espanyol's Facundo Roncaglia, right, clears the ball as Barca's Thierry Henry closes in on goal.
Espanyol's Facundo Roncaglia, right, clears the ball as Barca's Thierry Henry closes in on goal.

BARCELONA // Sharing their city with Barcelona is seldom easy, but Espanyol fans relish in their role as Barca's trip-wire. In 2007, Barca were one minute away from returning to the top of the league with a game to play when Espanyol's striker Raul Tamudo scored a dramatic goal. The title went to Real Madrid a week later.

And while Barca may have been all conquering treble winners last season, they were stunned by a 2-1 home defeat by their bottom-of-the-league neighbours. That result delighted and frustrated their fans who could not understand why their team were incapable of winning in five months, yet were able to demolish the world's best side away from home. After being stung too many times by their spoiling tactics, Barca treat Espanyol with extreme caution. Los Periquitos have not won since mid-October and have slipped down the table after a positive league start in their new home, but since when has form mattered in the Catalan derby?

On Saturday night in the Camp Nou, Espanyol were as obstinate as ever. It was Barca's final game before they flew to the Club World Club in Abu Dhabi yesterday, but the glamour surrounding the Spanish giants has always provided their neighbours with extra motivation. Espanyol's directors refused to attend a pre-match meal, prompting the Barca coach Pep Guardiola to opine that they might not be hungry. And when Lionel Messi received Ballon d'Or from his proud mother Celia before kick-off, that would have agitated further - Barca are the tall poppy and Espanyol delight in chopping them down.

Barca's Xavi claimed he was chopped down in the 38th minute and earned a penalty, though the midfielder went over far too easily and the frustrations of the Espanyol players were justified. With Messi absent to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic stepped up and stroked the ball past Carlos Kameni for his 11th league goal of the season. There would be no more goals and little more football as Espanyol succeeding in stifling Barca's finesse, seeing the encounter more as a battle of attrition than a game of football. The huge 84,559 crowd deserved better, as six yellow cards were brandished.

Guardiola had made the point pre-match that Espanyol's Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino "knows how to get aggression out of his players". Despite their fifth consecutive defeat in which they have failed to score a goal, a satisfied Pochettino said: "Barca are one of the best teams in the world. Despite the many misfortunes we had, we competed at a high level. I am proud of the team. We were daredevils in the second half, and there was not much difference between the champions and us."

Guardiola added: "We played well in the first half, it was a close thing. In the second, Espanyol created problems for us. We're tired and it must be noticeable." Barca's 39 points from 15 league games has broken their own record start to a season and they are five ahead of Real, who have a game in hand. Real beat third-placed Valencia 3-2 away, with all five goals scored in the second half in a thrilling game.

Gonzalo Higuain opened the scoring after 54 minutes before David Villa equalised four minutes later. Higuain, who combined well with out-of-form striker Karim Benzema throughout, scored again before Valencia substitute Joaquin equalised in the 80th minute. Substitute Ezequiel Garay scored his first Real goal - the match winner - in the 83rd minute. A delighted Garay added: "We continue improving. Fans will see Madrid play better football. This team is finding its game and identity."

There was some bad news for Real though. Portuguese centre-back Pepe, who fell awkwardly during the game, will be out of action for up to six months after damaging knee ligaments. amitten@thenational.ae