Focus carries Barcelona to derby win at Espanyol
Three quick thoughts as Barcelona take another step towards the La Liga title with a 2-0 derbi win at Catalan capital neighbours Espanyol on Saturday.
1. Barca keep focus and get job done early
This Catalan capital derbi game looked like a potential banana skin for Barcelona. Espanyol have been in decent form recently, and it seemed possible for at least part of Barca's collective mindset to be elsewhere in the run-up to kickoff.
Friday's Champions League semifinal draw has set up an emotional return to the Camp Nou for former Barca boss Pep Guardiola with his current club, Bayern Munich. Saturday morning's Catalan media gave much more coverage to that upcoming tie, with local paper Mundo Deportivo's first nine pages focused on Guardiola coming back to the Camp Nou, and the Espanyol preview starting on Page 10. Saturday is also the first anniversary of the death of former blaugrana coach Tito Vilanova.
Aware of these possible distractions, manager Luis Enrique on Friday talked of playing in "hostile territory," and called on the blaugrana family to park all other concerns. And his team looked fully switched on and ready for the battle from the very first moments. Inside two minutes, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez had opened up the defence and forced home goalkeeper Kiko Casilla into his first save. Barca were moving the ball very quickly, posing lots of threats to the opponents, and snapping into tackles to win the ball back on the rare occasions they gave it up.
The only surprise was that it took Barca 17 minutes to open the scoring, with a sweeping move leading to Jordi Alba's cross being cleverly stepped over by Suarez for Neymar to knock the ball to the net. Eight minutes later yet another intricate series of passes saw Andres Iniesta and Suarez combine and Messi finish very smartly at the back post.
There was again the possibility of something happening when Alba was sent off 10 minutes into second half, with the not-always-understandable referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz showing the Barca left-back two yellows in just a few seconds. The first was for kicking the ball away in protest at a decision not going his way, and the second appeared to be for something said to the official.
However, Barca's focus remained on the game -- with Messi hitting the post just a few minutes after the sending-off. Espanyol had more of the ball through the second half, but never really looked like coming back into the game. It was always more likely the blaugrana side would add to their lead, but in the end two goals were more than enough.
The outcome was Barca moving five points clear in the La Liga table, at least ahead of second-place Real Madrid's potentially tricky game at Celta Vigo on Sunday evening. This was another potentially difficult away fixture knocked off the blaugrana list, and the title looks ever closer with Luis Enrique's team having just five games now to play.
2. Trio at the top of their games
Through recent weeks it has generally been one or other of Barca's attacking "trident" which has decided games -- but here all three South American superstars were at the very top of their games.
For the first goal Messi came infield from his notional right-wing position and lifted a perfect ball over the top for Alba to get around the back of the home defence. Alba's cross was stepped over very cleverly by Suarez, leaving Neymar with a relatively simple tap-in. The build-up had included a full 25 passes -- seven more than any other goal in La Liga so far this term.
Barca's second came from another beautiful move. Suarez picked the ball up wide right, and knocked it back to Iniesta, who immediately returned it to the Uruguayan (in a borderline offside position), whose volleyed cross was a bit ahead of Messi. But the Argentine controlled instantly and slotted past Casilla from the tightest of angles to stretch his derbi record to 13 goals.
There was also some flexible tactical thought behind the front three's link-up. Messi and Neymar were playing a bit more narrowly on Saturday than in recent games -- coming infield and leaving the wings to the overlapping full-backs, which worked perfectly with Messi's ball to left-back Alba for the first goal. For the second it was Suarez who moved from centre-forward into space out wide right, and Messi who was at the back post to score.
Even with just 10 men on the pitch, Luis Enrique left his three attackers out there for almost 30 minutes, and the chances kept coming as they continued to link up so well. Messi's shot off the post just after Alba was sent off came after another one-two with Suarez after the Uruguayan had opened up the back line completely. Neymar lifted his shot just too high after the former Liverpool man had again set up a clear chance. The Brazilian's slalom run set up Messi for a late chance, but a defender just got across to block.
The Barca front three now have 97 goals between them in all competitions: Messi 47, Neymar 31 and Suarez 19. The total of 100 could easily have arrived on Saturday, and could well fall on Tuesday afternoon when Barca host Getafe at the Camp Nou.
3. Espanyol pain again in the derby
Barca have never lost at Espanyol's Cornella El-Prat ground, and that record was never in any danger of going today. The Catalan capital's second team's last win in a derby was in 2008-09. They are now without a win in 12 league meetings with Barcelona, losing the last seven in a row, scoring just one goal across 630 minutes.
It did seem pregame as if a shock were at least possible. Espanyol have been doing really well this season, in former Pericos player Sergio Gonzalez's first year as coach. A win here would have given them a decent chance of finishing seventh, which would bring Europa League football next season should Barca win the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao. "The three points are just as important for us as for Barca," said Sergio at Friday's news conference.
But the home side were steamrollered completely by Barca's intense start to the game, with Sergio Busquets, Iniesta and Messi ruling the midfield, and their side's share of possession up around 85 percent at times during the first half.
Even having an extra man during most of the second half did not make much difference. Espanyol's ex-Barca youth team centre-forward Sergio Garcia was as usual their most likely source of a spark, but was generally well-marshalled. One second-half burst from the Espanyol top scorer brought a shot on the turn, which was easily saved by Claudio Bravo.
Ex-Madrid youth-teamer Lucas Vazquez has had a good season, but his day was summed up by being booked for diving on the edge of the Barca penalty area late on. Substitute Christian Stuani had the best chance with time almost up, but again Bravo saved his weak shot easily.
The feeling was that Espanyol could have kept playing all evening, but Barca would not have given up their lead. The late sending off of Mexico centre-half Hector Moreno, who had a very difficult afternoon against Suarez, ended all hope. This has been a decent season for Gonzalez's side, but their derbi pain continues.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan