Barcelona were forced to work hard, but eventually prevailed to take local spoils and ensure they remain atop La Liga with a 1-0 victory over Espanyol at the Camp Nou. It was a far from free-flowing display from the home side against their local rivals and they had to wait until a 68th-minute close-range strike from Alexis Sanchez to breakthrough Espanyol’s rearguard effort.
On Gerardo Martino’s 100th day in charge, it was a match that will doubtless be used by his critics as further evidence of the disintegration of the team’s style under the Argentine. That would certainly been harsh with the team still a work in progress and with certain individuals, not least Lionel Messi, not currently on top form.
As with the Clasico last week, Barcelona were again thankful for the displays of both Neymar and Alexis Sanchez. Neymar, in particular offered the kind of invention and change of pace currently lacking elsewhere and it was his assist that set up the Chilean to get the winner. It also, of course, shouldn’t be overlooked that this was Barcelona’s 11th win from their opening 12 La Liga games. In results terms, it has been a stunning start to the campaign.
The opening to the match suggested that it would be a far more comfortable evening for Barcelona than it turned out. The movement of Barcelona’s front three caused Espanyol problems as Andres Iniesta’s ball found Sanchez switched to the left flank but his side-footed shot was repelled by Kiko Casilla. Sanchez had another chance too when Alves’ headed the ball slightly behind him and his shot was hit off target.
But it then became far more difficult for Barcelona to make inroads as their Catalan neighbors settled into their deep lying, compact shape. The hosts lacked the sharp movement and interplay that has become their trademark and instead were seemingly all too happy to rely on the crosses and long shots that Espanyol were content to offer.
With Martin Montoya offering little attacking threat in an unfamiliar left-back berth, Dani Alves was predictably the man repeatedly found in space to put in crosses. His delivery was found wanting far too often, but he did come closest to breaking the deadlock for Barcelona in the first half. After Iniesta’s long-range effort was blocked, the ball fell to the Brazilian on the edge of the box but his shot bounced back off the post.
Despite having precious little of the ball, the clearest opportunity of the period, though, fell to Espanyol. Again Alves was involved, as he unwisely looked to let an errant through ball run through to his goalkeeper, which allowed Victor Sanchez to sneak in and get an effort in on goal, but Victor Valdes was quick to react and make a fine save.
There was little improvement for Barcelona to begin the second half. Iniesta saw another powerful effort blocked by a defender, while a more accurate Alves cross deflected off the head of Sanchez onto that of Messi and Casilla had to dive to his right to keep the ball at bay.
It was Neymar that offered the promise of the inspiration required to finally pierce through Espanyol’s defense. Cutting in in trademark style from the left, he fired a shot with tremendous whip that just curled past the far corner. Just minutes later a similar move would have Barcelona in front.
Again, he drifted in from his flank, but this time he chose not to go for the shot and instead once more displayed his unselfishness to provide a sublime low cross through the legs of two defenders to pick out Sanchez at the far post who slid in to score from close range.
Barcelona failed to hammer home their advantage as might have been expected after going in front. Pedro came off the bench and fired a shot that was blocked by Casilla’s legs, but Barcelona would remain ill at ease until the final whistle.