La Liga 17/18 Gameweek 22: Espanyol vs Barcelona– Lineups, Preview and Prediction
This Catalan derby sees struggling Espanyol take on the might of their city rivals Barcelona.
15:15 GMT, Sunday 4th February, RCDE Stadium (Barcelona, Spain) Sky Sports Football
For the third time in little over two weeks, Espanyol take on their more illustrious neighbours, Barcelona. The junior side in the city have struggled in the league of late and are without a win in their last three matches, conceding seven goals in that time. Quique Sanchez Flores’ side are not in any serious trouble yet, and are still seven points clear of relegation, but in a compact mid-table, a run of bad form can see a team slip rapidly down the table.
Espanyol produced their best performance of the season when they beat Barcelona 1-0 in the first leg of their Cope del Rey quarter-final, only a fortnight ago. If they can reproduce that level of quality then they could make life very difficult for the league leaders.
Ernesto Valverde is enjoying a brilliant debut season as Barcelona boss and is yet to taste defeat in the league. His side are eleven points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid and the only real challenge remaining for them in La Liga is whether they can go all 38 games unbeaten. The only team to have beaten them this season are Sunday’s opponents Espanyol in the Copa del Rey.
With Barcelona’s attentions moving towards the knockout stages of the Champions League and the semi-final of the cup, they will have to ensure that they keep their focus against an Espanyol side who will be desperate to secure local bragging rights.
Last Time Out
Leganes 3-2 Espanyol (La Liga)
A bizarre game saw Espanyol come away empty-handed against Leganes and extend their dire run to three games without a win. The away side were the better team for most of the match but were ultimately undone by two own goals.
The first serious error came from Mario Hermoso who knocked it past his own goalkeeper after 12 minutes to give the home side the lead.
Marc Navarro managed to equalise in the 49th minute with a powerful strike, only for a header from Miguel Guerrero to cancel it out twenty minutes later.
Espanyol continued to create chances, but Mario Hermoso stepped up yet again to slice the ball into his own goal in the 82nd minute, despite being under no pressure whatsoever.
Not to be kept out of the action for too long, Hermoso hit back with a header in the final two minutes, this time into the opposition’s net.
Barcelona 1-0 Valencia (Copa del Rey Semi-Final First Leg)
Barcelona struggled to break down a Valencia side who had set their stall out to defend deep from the very beginning of the game. The home side had 72% of possession and four times more shots than their opponents but will carry only a slender lead into the second leg.
The game followed a familiar pattern of Barcelona patiently prowling around the final third, waiting for the opposition to make a mistake and leave some space open to be exploited.
Valencia held firm for the most part, but a single lapse in concentration allowed Luis Suarez to head in at the far post to give Barcelona the advantage in the tie.
Quique Sanchez Flores has very few injury problems to deal with on Sunday.
Midfielder Pablo Piatti (muscle) and left back Didac Vila (thigh) are the only probably absentees as neither have yet returned to full match fitness.
Deadline day signing Carlos Sanchez will hope to take his place in midfield.
The only serious concern for Ernesto Valverde is Ousmane Dembele (hamstring) who is still a few weeks away from a comeback.
There are still slight doubts over the fitness of Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring) and Andre Gomes (gastrointestinal discomfort).
Having played in a tough midweek fixture against Valencia, Andres Iniesta will most likely be rested, with Philippe Coutinho stepping up to fill his place.
Key Battle: Leo Baptistao (Espanyol) vs Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona)
Brazilian forward Leo Baptistao is a player who has suffered on account of his versatility throughout most of his career. This season he has played five different roles and would perhaps benefit from more consistent selection. Despite this, he has still managed to score three league goals and provide the assist for three more already this season.
The 25-year-old has lost much of his sharpness in the past few months and Espanyol need him to recover his best form if they are to avoid slipping into a relegation battle.
On Sunday, Baptistao will be up against his countryman, Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian international made his big breakthrough whilst on loan at Espanyol in 2012 and will have happy memories of the RCDE Stadium.
He is still finding his feet in La Liga following his high-profile move from Liverpool in the January transfer window and will need patience as he takes time to adjust. This weekend he will most likely replace the rested Andres Iniesta. These are astronomically big boots to fill and there will be pressure on Coutinho to show that he is up to the task.
What will the atmosphere be like after a tetchy cup tie?
Espanyol managed to rattle Barcelona in more ways than one over the course of their two legged Copa del Rey quarter-final. Excessive celebrations at the end of their first leg victory riled Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique enough for them to publicly complain. Espanyol responded with an official complaint against Busquets and Pique for bringing the game into disrepute.
During the game itself, projectiles were thrown at the Barcelona players, with one object striking goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen in the face. The Espanyol players were aggressive on the pitch and a combination of high energy pressing and tight defensive organisation proved too much for the league leaders to handle. The atmosphere is unlikely to be relaxed on Sunday afternoon.
Where will Coutinho fit into this Barcelona side?
Having spent over £100 million on Coutinho this winter, Barcelona are entitled to expect an immediate return. As a former Liverpool player, the Brazilian is cup-tied for the Champions League and with only two potential fixtures left in the Copa del Rey, he will almost exclusively feature in La Liga.
On Sunday he will most likely replace Andres Iniesta in the starting lineup. If Coutinho is to become the long-term successor to the Spain and Barcelona great then he will need to adapt his game. At Liverpool he was the focal point of the side and his main strengths included direct dribbling and long-range efforts. At Barcelona he will have to learn how to play as part of the metronomic passing machine that is his new club. It will not be easy and he will need to be given time.
Against Valencia midweek, Barcelona played a 4-4-2 formation, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez as a forward pairing. It is hard to see Coutinho playing the role of Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic in the centre of the park so he may well end up being employed in a wider role. The next few months will be a learning process for both the player and the club, but Coutinho’s talent is not under question.
Prediction: Espanyol 1-2 Barcelona
The home side will be fired up after the comments made by senior members of the Barcelona squad and will have the belief that they can win having already beaten Sunday’s visitors. If Espanyol can create an uncomfortable atmosphere for their opponents, both on and off the pitch, then they could provide a real challenge for the league leaders.
Will Barcelona be up for the fight?
Let us know in the comments section below?