Liga - Espanyol dent Barcelona hopes

Sun, 08 Jan 22:27:00 2012

Alvaro Vazquez's late goal in the Catalan derby earned Espanyol a 1-1 draw and dented Barcelona's La Liga title hopes at the Estadio Cornella-El Prat.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi (R) fights for the ball against Espanyol's Didac Vila during their Spanish First division soccer match at Cornella-El Prat stadium, near Barcelona January 8, 2012 - 0

The substitute headed in a flick from Thievy Bifouma in the 86th minute to cancel out Cesc Fabregas's early effort.

Real Madrid now have a five-point lead over Barcelona who allowed complacency to set in a keenly contested second-half.

Espanyol went into the match without striker Walter Pandiani, who failed to overcome a thigh problem while Javi Lopez only made the bench after a recent leg injury. Former Barca youngster Sergio Garcia lead the line with Joan Verdu just behind him in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Barcelona's Andres Iniesta returned from a muscular injury and took his place alongside Sergio Busquets and Xavi in midfield. Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez formed the front three, with David Villa and Ibrahim Afellay long-term injury victims.

Barcelona could have found themselves behind after just five minutes. Their former player Sergio Garcia got in behind their defence on the left and crossed for Joan Verdu. The vice-captain's header was spectacularly kept out by Victor Valdes and his follow up cleared off the line by Gerard Pique.

Lionel Messi was then booked for handball after he controlled a horrendous pass from Espanyol goalkeeper Cristian Alvarez and set up Fabregas to score. The goal was rightly ruled out, with Messi clearly controlling with his arm.

But it did not take long for the visitors to go ahead as Dani Alves curled in a cross for Fabregas whose firm downward header beat Alvarez. The Argentinian will reflect that he should have done better as he allowed the header to go through his hands.

Espanyol were still posing a threat at the other end and Valdes had to be on his mettle to save a shot from Garcia, before Eric Abidal blocked a goal-bound Thievy Bifouma effort.

The final action of the first-half saw Fabregas twist and turn in the Espanyol area before seeing his low shot blocked by the feet of Alvarez at the near post.

Barca failed to hammer home their advantage after the break, unable to display the urgency of a side attempting to narrow the gap on Real to three points.

Espanyol found clear cut chances hard to come by but there was always a tenacity in their attacking play meaning Barca could never relax.

The otherwise subdued Messi struck the outside of the post after a low cross from substitute Pedro Rodriguez, before Alvarez was stretchered off for Espanyol to be replaced by substitute goalkeeper Kiko Casilla.

Barca were made to pay for a pedestrian second-half display when Alvaro struck in the 86th minute. Raul Rodriguez delivered a cross from the right which was touched on by Thievy Bifouma and headed home by Alvaro.

Only after the equaliser did Barca show the same determinism to attack as they had at times in the first-half.

And they could have won it in injury time. First Pique thudded a shot against the upright, before Pedro's follow up was blocked by the arm of Raul Rodriguez. Iniesta then curled wide as Espanyol's goal lived a charmed life. Barca may reflect that they should have had a penalty for Rodriguez's handball, but Pedro's effort was struck with power from close range.

The final whistle was greeted with cheers from the home support whose team were rewarded for a spirited performance in the derby.

Stewart Coggin / Eurosport

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