Iniesta's tribute not lost on Espanyol
There is one Barcelona player who will not be booed, heckled and jeered when he takes to the field at the most eagerly awaited Catalan derby in years tonight.
Five months after he scored the winning goal in the World Cup final, Andres Iniesta plays his first game at Espanyol. Iniesta celebrated his goal in South Africa by lifting up his Spain shirt to reveal the message: "Dani Jarque, always with us," to the watching world.
Jarque was the Espanyol captain who died in his hotel room during his club's pre-season last year from a suspected heart defect
"He was my friend," said Iniesta this week of his former Spain Under 21 teammate. The Barca player was in the unfamiliar surrounding of Espanyol's ground to present the shirt to sit alongside other mementos in a permanent memorial to Jarque at Gate 21 (Jarque wore 21). "I needed to do something for him," said Iniesta.
Espanyol fans spend the 21st minute of every home game applauding the memory of Jarque and, despite not liking Barca, they are sure to be equally generous with Iniesta, at least before the game.
Fourth-placed Espanyol may have won every home game this season thus far, conceding just twice during their seven victories, but they are underdogs when they host neighbours Barca.
Espanyol have to play to their strengths and one will be the feverish atmosphere created by the 40,000 sell-out crowd in their new Cornella home.
Espanyol's fans are loud when their 25,000 average are present for a normal league game. But against Barca, it's one of the best atmospheres in Spanish football.
The Barca players are used to the enmity. Espanyol's up and at them tactics frequently unnerve them. Under tough Argentine coach Mauricio Pochettino, Espanyol held Barca at home last season and only lost narrowly in Camp Nou, a stadium where they triumphed a year earlier.
Pochettino is a realist. Since taking charge two years ago, he has created a tough side on a limited budget. His side contains many homegrown youngsters, plus several who played in Barca's youth academy such as Joan Verdu, Victor Ruiz and Raul Baena.
The more experienced Ivan de la Pena and Sergio Garcia were also at Barca, with De la Pena saying: "It's obvious we can't compete with Barcelona for the Liga, but in one game anything can happen."
Pochettino also acknowledged Barca's brilliance, especially that of Lionel Messi, his compatriot.
"Like Maradona or Pele in their day, Messi is the best player in the world," said the 37-year-old coach, who rejects claims that he is the "anti-Guardiola" for his spoiling tactics.
"With their individual class, Barcelona can ruin all your plans, there are a lot of tactics to stop Barcelona."
Chastised by their recent games against Espanyol, Barca are not taking anything for granted. Carles Puyol, the club captain, is expecting "the hardest away game that we have played all season".
Victor Valdes, the Barca goalkeeper, who has not conceded a goal in 541 minutes, emphasised what the game means to the many local players. "Many of the players from here have known each other since we've been kids," he said.
"Espanyol have improved, they have a much better technical level, and they're focused and have a stronger physical presence." Intense for Valdes and most of his teammates, poignant for Iniesta.
At least until the game starts.
Deportivo v Sporting Gijon 9pm
Levante v Athletic Bilbao 9pm
Villarreal v Mallorca 9pm
Espanyol v Barcelona 11pm
Real Sociedad v Valencia 1am
Almeria v Getafe 8pm
Osasuna v Real Zaragoza 8pm
Malaga v Atletico Madrid 10pm
Real Madrid v Sevilla Midnight
R Santander v Hercules Midnight
Updated: December 18, 2010 04:00 AM