Luck of the champions? Barcelona squeeze past spoilers Espanyol to keep up title race

If Barcelona do eventually topple Real Madrid to record their third consecutive La Liga triumph, those in charge at Camp Nou may seriously consider placing a statue of Jose Manuel Jurado in the entrance to the famous old stadium.

Not only did the hapless Espanyol player squander a golden chance to put the hosts ahead in a predictably fierce, tense derby game on Saturday, but he also threw open the game with a suicidal pass across his own area. The chance was greedily seized upon by Luis Suarez, who was left free to fire past Diego Lopez and put Barca ahead 50 minutes into the tie.

It was, quite incredibly given their free-scoring form of the past few matches, the visitors' first shot on target of the entire match thus far, a statistic that says as much about Espanyol's intentions going into this grudge clash as it does of Barcelona's inability to counter their spoilsport neighbours.

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Quique Sanchez Flores' men welcomed their rivals to the Estadi Cornella Prat with one goal, and only one, in mind. Espanyol were desperate to scupper Barcelona's bid to keep up with Madrid at the Liga summit, with that extra game the Merengue still hold going into the season's final stages heavy on the minds of all involved. Anything other than a win for the reigning champions would all but spark the celebration parties in the Spanish capital, leaving Barca's challenge all but over.

As it stands, the champagne will remain on ice at the Santiago Bernabeu. But Barcelona should be counting their lucky stars after a game that ranks with those Champions League blowouts against Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus as their very worst of the season.

There was nothing particularly ingenious about the Espanyol plan. Well-drilled and intensely motivated, they set out to hit anything that moved in a Barca shirt, Sergi Roberto finding out sooner than most with a crunching hit from Pablo Piatti that left the midfielder wincing. The Argentine escaped a yellow card for his misdemeanour, and plenty of Perico players also lived on the edge with the connivance of permissive match official Alberto Mallenco, an old bogey man of the Catalans.

Neymar David López Espanyol Barcelona LaLiga 29042017
Luis Suárez Espanyol Barcelona LaLiga 29042017

But neither can Barca point to a refereeing conspiracy for their lack of potency. While Espanyol played a dangerous, physical defensive game, they also quite legally suffocated everything their rivals could create from the moment of inception. Only Neymar, with a few flashes of brilliance down the left, threatened to escape the vice and create, while Lionel Messi was subjected for the vast majority of the game to a double marking job from Diego Reyes and Javier Fuego up there with the most effective defensive displays against the ever-threatening Pulga.

Further back down the pitch Andre Gomes had another one of those games that leave Barca fans wondering just what the Blaugrana board ever saw in him. Panicked, sloppy and bereft of ideas in the final third, the Portuguese fell back down to earth following a fine game against Osasuna and once more invited the suspicion that he is little more than a pale shadow of Andres Iniesta.

Suarez's gift of a goal knocked the wind out of the hosts for most of the second half. It failed, however, to inspire Barcelona to better things. Only in the dying stages of the game, with Espanyol already wheezing after a positively superhuman effort, was the game put out of reach. Messi finally managed to shake off his Perico entourage long enough to slice through the middle of the defence, opening a space unseen for the previous 75 minutes and allowing Ivan Rakitic to fire the second past Lopez. Only at 3-0 up, courtesy of another marauding run from Messi and Suarez's neat close-range finish, did Barcelona ensure they live to fight another day.

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The result logically left the Cornella Prat deflated. At half-time Espanyol's support was jubilant, readying a display of collective schadenfreude on a monumental scale as Barca teetered on the brink of oblivion. Thanks to Jurado, however, and Suarez's lethal finishing, the away team did just enough to spoil the celebrations for the consummate spoilers. It was a veritable vortex of spoiling efforts, an inception of ruining one's day that only Leo Di Caprio could effectively investigate.

Luis Enrique's team will not be fooled by the eventually comfortable result. They were given the fright of their life on Saturday, and the breakthrough came with a stroke of fortune rarely seen at this level. This time Barcelona were not to drop points on one of their rare off-days, as has occurred countless of times in this difficult season; the luck of the champions, if such a thing exists, returned in the nick of time.

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