Gerard Pique to the rescue in Catalan derby as Barcelona maintain unbeaten La Liga record

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Gerard Pique got some stick from the Espanyol fans - then scored.

Gerard Pique netted a late equaliser as Barcelona salvaged a 1-1 derby draw at Espanyol which extended their unbeaten start to the La Liga season to a club-record 22 games.

Espanyol had looked set to follow up last month’s shock Copa del Rey triumph over their neighbours with another upset when Gerard Moreno put them ahead in the 66th minute at a rain-drenched RCDE Stadium.

But Barca, whose cup quarter-final first-leg defeat here brought an end to their 29-match unbeaten run in all competitions this season, battled back and Pique ensured the spoils were shared.

Espanyol had lost all three of their matches since beating Barca – including a 2-0 second-leg defeat at the Nou Camp to crash out of the cup – while Ernesto Valverde’s treble-chasers were looking to consolidate an 11-point lead at the La Liga summit.

However, form counts for little in derbies and the testing conditions added an extra element to the encounter.

Despite that, Barca kept faith with their trademark passing game in the opening exchanges and were almost rewarded with a fine opening goal in the 22nd minute.

Sergio Busquets sprayed a cross-field pass into the area where Lucas Digne cushioned a pass back to Philippe Coutinho on the edge of the box, from where the former Liverpool man saw a superb curling effort come crashing back off the crossbar.

Nobody would come closer to scoring in the fist half, although Leo Baptistao twice threatened for an Espanyol side who had lost all three matches since beating Barca in the cup.

Baptistao’s first effort was a 25-yard shot that was saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, albeit after a fumble, while his second saw him head over from six yards out when he should have done better.

Espanyol thought they had scored seconds after the restart but Moreno’s effort was ruled out because the ball had gone out of play moments before.

With clear-cut chances still in short supply at either end, Valverde opted to make a double change on the hour, with Messi and Sergi Roberto the men to come on.

Espanyol boss Quique Sanchez Flores followed suit soon after, and his substitution paid almost immediate dividends as the newly-introduced Sergio Garcia set up Moreno to break the deadlock.

The hosts quickly won the ball back from a Ter Stegen clearance before working possession out to the right wing, where Garcia swung an inch-perfect cross in for Moreno to head home.

With standing water becoming an increasing feature of the RCDE pitch, Barca were struggling to fashion opportunities and began resorting to a more direct style.

But they found their reward in the 82nd minute when Pique rose highest in the box to power home Messi’s free-kick from the left.

Both sides pushed for a winner in the closing stages as tempers began to fray but aside from Espanyol appealing for a late penalty, neither goal was seriously threatened.

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Lionel Messi rested for Barcelona's La Liga clash against Espanyol

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Ernesto Valverde has decided to rest Lionel Messi for Barcelona’s away clash against Espanyol in La Liga on Sunday evening.

The Argentine was named on the bench for the fixture while January signing Philippe Coutinho started and Andres Iniesta was also named in the first eleven.

With the Catalans playing their 10th match in 32 days, Valverde has taken the opportunity to rest Messi with the side enjoying an 11-point lead over second place Atletico Madrid.

Barcelona will face Valencia away in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg on Thursday night having won the first leg 1-0 at the Nou Camp.

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Will Ernesto Valverde dare rest Lionel Messi and other Barcelona key questions ahead of Espanyol trip

Andy West 3/02/2018
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Barcelona travel to Espanyol on Sunday, looking for their 19th win of the La Liga season.

The Catalans are 14 places and 33 points ahead of their cross-town rivals going into the fixture.

Here are three key questions ahead of the encounter.

All change for Barcelona?

Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has confirmed he plans to make several changes to his team for this weekend’s local derby to avoid overloading his players during a frantic run of games.

The success of Valverde’s team in advancing to the Copa del Rey semi-finals means they have played twice a week every week since returning from the Christmas break, and are now heading into their tenth game in the last 32 days.

There could be a debut in the centre of defence for recent signing Yerry Mina, while Nelson Semedo, Lucas Digne, Paulinho, Philippe Coutinho, Denis Suarez and Paco Alcacer will also hope for the opportunity to start – but midfielder Andre Gomes is still ruled out after illness.

Ideally, Lionel Messi should be one of the players rested because the last thing Valverde needs is his talisman suffering an injury or the onset of fatigue, but Messi is famously insistent upon playing as much as possible and would not take kindly to being left on the bench. A big call, then, for Valverde.

Yerry Mina

Yerry Mina

Pique in the line of fire?

If Valverde wishes to be diplomatic, one player he will leave out of his starting line-up on Sunday is central defender Gerard Pique, who endures what can only be described as a ‘hate-hate’ relationship with fans of cross-town rivals Espanyol.

Pique has regularly been forced to endure vitriolic obscene chants about his partner Shakira during previous trips to the Cornella-El Prat, and he stretched tensions even further by mocking Espanyol’s humble origins at a recent press conference to mark his signing of a new contract.

There’s nothing like the sight of Pique to whip Espanyol fans into a frenzy of fury, so leaving him out of the firing line could well be a sensible decision to help diffuse the atmosphere both on and off the pitch.

That increases the chances of a debut for Mina, although Valverde has repeatedly stressed the need for the Colombian international to be given a period of adaptation following his recent capture from Palmeiras.

Gerard Pique

Gerard Pique

Messi, Suarez….can anyone else score?

Barca are blessed to boast La Liga’s top two scorers, Messi (20 goals) and Suarez (16), who have scored more between them than the entire Atletico Madrid team (32).

Messi and Suarez are perhaps the most reliable goal-scoring duo in world football, but Valverde would like to see other players step up to the mark as well – something that has not been happening in recent weeks.

The team’s last nine goals in all competitions have been scored by – in reverse chronological order – Suarez, Messi, Suarez, Messi, Suarez, Suarez, Messi, Suarez and Messi, with nobody else getting on target since Ivan Rakitic netted the opener in the 5-0 rout of Real Betis.

Paulinho, Rakitic and Alcacer are the kind of players who should be contributing regularly as well, and Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, in his defence, has already chipped in with eight league goals. But the recent over-reliance on Suarez and Messi, as brilliant as they are, is something Valverde would like to end as soon as possible.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez

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