RCD Espanyol vs Barcelona
After the briefest of winter breaks, La Liga returns with the Catalan derby. The fixture known as El Derbi Barceloní.
Yet this is no ordinary derby.
This is a game which has a long history of rivalries and La Liga highlights. A match-up between giants and their much smaller neighbours, indeed underdogs.
A new decade also brings new faces as Abelardo Fernandez takes charge of the hosts as their third coach of the campaign against the club where he made his name as a player.
Barcelona are the leaders and expected to return to the Nou Camp with maximum points against their struggling opponents who are bottom of the table with just two wins this season – a 1-0 away win at Levante and a 2-1 victory at Eibar – and five points from safety.
That is a major surprise given last term they fought for a place in the Europa League and ultimately finished in seventh position.
Despite showing glimpses of that form by topping their Europa League group, their performances have severely dipped in the league and they have suffered their worst ever start to a league campaign without a home win in nine league games.
Surely that won’t end against the champions who have a two point lead at the summit following a 4-1 home success against Alaves just before Christmas.
This wasn’t planned when Espanyol were taken over by Chinese billionaire Chen Yansheng and which has seen a massive spike in interest in the club since the arrival of Wu Lei – dubbed the “Chinese Maradona” by one of his former coaches – two years ago.
The truth is the club has struggled to recover since selling forward Borja Iglesias to Real Betis and centre back Mario Hermoso to Atletico Madrid last summer.
Team news wise, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has been able to welcome back Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal to training this week. The three South Americans had been granted a slightly longer break than their European teammates, with the rest of the squad having had their first post-Christmas training session on December 29.
Elsewhere, Valverde will be unable to call upon neither Ousmane Dembele nor Arthur Melo, while Marc-Andre ter Stegen is a serious doubt.
The focus on Espanyol is whether the new manager will be able to strengthen the league’s bottom club during the January transfer window.
Sporting director Rufete this week fielded a number of questions. One of them was about the rumours linking them to Hulk, but Rufete said the striker won’t be coming to the RCDE Stadium, although he did say there could be other players coming in.
Of course, it is not just Abelardo facing his former employers.
‘Abelardo, the new coach of Espanyol with a Barcelona past – 257 matches, 17 goals,’ Barcelona tweeted on Thursday with a video of his goals. He spent eight years at the Camp Nou between 1994 and 2002, winning two La Liga Santander titles among other trophies.
Shortly after Barcelona’s post, Espanyol replied in a similar vein, celebrating Valverde’s time as player and coach at Cornella.
That may be as friendly as it gets once the action kicks-off.
It is derby day, after all.
Last season in this fixture saw Barcelona win 2-0 at home with a Messi double.
Messi also notched a brace for Barca in the corresponding fixture in 2018/19 – a thumping 4-0 triumph for the visitors at RCDE Stadium.
The season before, however, Espanyol held their opponents to a 1-1 draw at home, although went down 5-0 in the Nou Camp.
Espanyol moved to the RCDE in 2009 but it was not until their 10th meeting with their neighbours at their new arena that they were able to win a derby fixture (three draws, six defeats), winning 1–0 in a Copa quarter-final first leg tie.
However, Ernesto Valverde’s men overturned it 2-0 the following week to go through in the tie.
Barcelona have historically dominated these matches and Espanyol have only succeeded in defeating their Catalan rivals three times in almost 70 years.
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