The first La Liga game of 2016 ended goalless as Barcelona dropped vital points in the La Liga title race after being held to a goalless draw in a bad-tempered Catalan derby on Saturday by Espanyol.
Luis Enrique made three changes from the 4-0 victory over Real Betis on December 30, with Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta all starting, while Constantin Galca called up Victor Alvarez, Pape Diop, Joan Jordan and Burgui in response to the 2-0 defeat to Sevilla prior to the turn of the year.
The match marked the start of a marathon involving Espanyol and Barca, with the pair due to rematch in the Copa del Rey last 16 on Wednesday and then for the second leg a week later, and a feisty first half was served up at Cornella El-Prat, if not a classic.
Instead, Espanyol could head into the break the happier of the two sides after they stifled Barca’s dynamic possession game, even if they were guilty of breaking into double digits on the foul count.
Galca made it clear before the game that his side would not ‘park the bus’ against their arch-rivals, and they created the best chance of the opening 45 as Gerard Pique was forced to clear a corner off the line.
However, Barca did hit the top-right of Pau Lopez’s woodwork from Lionel Messi’s free kick, while Andres Iniesta came a whisker away from firing home the No 10’s through ball, only for Javi Lopez to fly in with a last-ditch sliding tackle.
The restart presented Barca with a succession of chances to break the deadlock, but Messi was caught offside when finishing off a sweeping move, before Luis Suarez fired against the post from point-blank range, despite having beaten Pau Lopez.
The match then descended into a scrappy battle, with a flurry of fouls and yellow cards being dished out by Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez – the man responsible for the refereeing controversies in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win against Real Sociedad in the previous round.
Barca brought on Sergi Roberto in a bid to freshen things up, but their need for Aleix Vidal and, especially, Arda Turan became evident as Marco Asensio could have won the game for Espanyol with the last kick of the game, had his ball across goal for an unmarked Caicedo been more accurate.
The hosts left the pitch to widespread applause from delighted Periquitos, who saw their team put in a committed display from the first to last whistle, while Barca allowed Atletico Madrid back in with the shout of replacing them at the summit.