Seven Deadly Stats as Pique gets another derby goal in Barca's 1-1 draw with Espanyol

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Espanyol are Gerard Pique's favourite opponents.

Barcelona came dangerously close to losing their unbeaten run in La Liga, on a wet, soggy afternoon at the home of local rivals Espanyol.

Blaugrana’s Catalonian rivals had ended Barcelona’s overall unbeaten start to the season with a win in the Copa del Rey last month, and they looked to be repeating the feat after taking a second-half lead and then keeping Barcelona at bay after that.

But Gerard Pique’s late header ensured that Barcelona’s bid for an unbeaten league season remains intact, after a 1-1 draw in one of the toughest fixtures Ernesto Valverde’s men have contested this season.

Here are Seven Deadly Stats from the game:

BARCELONA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE WOODWORK

Barcelona would score their 60th goal of the season in La Liga on Sunday night, in just 22 games, a remarkable feat in itself. But with a little more luck, they could be averaging more than three goals a game. Philippe Coutinho‘s early strike nearly gave him a fantastic maiden goal for the club, but instead it became a sight that has been all too common this season for the Spanish giants: a shot hitting the woodwork.

Unbeaten start to the league season, runaway favourites for the title already, and yet they can genuinely claim they’ve been unlucky. How scary is that?

A LONG OVERDUE GOAL

That unbeaten run was looking precarious when Espanyol grew into the game in the second-half. The hosts hadn’t beaten Barcelona in the league in their last 17 attempts, but for a while it looked like that drought would end on Sunday after Gerard Moreno put Espanyol in front. 

In the end, the Periquitos had to settle for the end of a different drought, as Moreno brought up a career first. 

PIQUE LOVES THE DERBY

It was Pique to the rescue, as the defender’s late header from a Lionel Messi free-kick levelled the scores and earned Barca a creditable draw.

Pique and Espanyol have long had a prickly relationship, with the Barcelona defender having a history of winding up his local rivals and the Espanyol fans making their own feelings about the player perfectly clear. Again on Sunday, the 31-year-old was subjected to a torrent of abuse from the home fans, but he had the last laugh.

He does love scoring in the derby – Pique hasn’t scored more than three goals against any other opponent, but he’s prolific against Barcelona’s local rivals.

MESSI, MR. CONSISTENT

What’s left to be said about Messi? Even in a game like this, with the pitch practically water-logged and the rain making playing football, especially in the traditional Barcelona way, more or less impossible, the Argentinian was able to illuminate the game with his magic.

When he came on as a substitute, it instantly seemed like he was playing on a different pitch to everyone else. His dribbling and close control on a day where moving required swimming more than it did running was sublime.

And when given an opportunity to set up an equaliser, Messi didn’t disappoint. It was a perfectly-struck free-kick for Pique to attack and head home.

MR. UNSTOPPABLE

Imagine this: of Barcelona’s 60 league goals this season, Messi has been involved in half. There are still 16 games left to play. 

It’s only February, but he’s already established himself as the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or. Of course, this being a World Cup year, it’s possible that someone who shines in international football’s showpiece event, or in the Champions League, and does reasonably well the rest of the season – here’s looking at you, Neymar – could steal the crown from under Messi’s nose, but at the moment, the Barcelona man is well out in front. 

ESPANYOL EARN THEIR DRAW

Espanyol will feel they deserved a win, although a draw against this Barcelona side – even in conditions which level the playing field and perhaps even give you an advantage – is a creditable result. And this was no backs to the wall job, either. The hosts were good value for their point and negated Barcelona’s high-flying attack, keeping Coutinho and Luis Suarez at arm’s length throughout the contest.

They’ll be disappointed that it was a set-piece, of all things, that robbed them of a win, but when the set-piece taker is Lionel Messi, then such things can be forgiven. Even if that means having to swallow a Gerard Pique goal on your turf.

But the way they defended and barely offered Spain’s best attack a sniff at goal will be encouraging for a team that’s languishing in 15th place.

EVEN FOR BARCA, A NEW HIGH

This Barcelona team has taken on all comers with a resolve underpinning their stylish play, and it’s shown in games like this, games they could have lost and maybe even deserved to lose, but where they kept fighting and earned a positive result. 

Credit where it’s due: Valverde has restored the fight that seemed to be missing last season, and although the manager still has his share of critics among the Barcelona faithful, he’s showing in his first season in the Barca dugout that he can build a team of both substance and style. 

It’s a mark of how good this team is under Valverde that they’ve now broken a record set by the legendary Pep Guardiola Barcelona team. 

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Torrential rain dampens Philippe Coutinho's impact for Barcelona on return to Espanyol

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Coutinho's return to Espanyol was not a triumphant one.

Philippe Coutinho got the opportunity on Sunday to show how far he’d come since he was last at Espanyol’s home stadium. Barcelona’s “other club” had given Coutinho the chance to prove himself during a spell on loan from Inter Milan when he was struggling at the Italian side, and having made the most of that chance, the Brazilian has gone from strength to strength before making it back to Barcelona for the city’s more famed club.

But on Sunday, amidst conditions which made playing football borderline impossible as the rain left Espanyol’s pitch more or less water-logged, Coutinho struggled to have the impact he’s capable of. Thankfully for him, his teammates were able to rescue a 1-1 draw when it looked like Barcelona were heading for their first La Liga loss this season.

Here’s a look at how Coutinho fared against his old side.

BASIC STATS

Goals – 0

Assists – 0

Shots – 2

Shots on target – 0

Pass Accuracy – 83%

Key Passes – 3

Dribbles – 1

Touches – 85

EFFECTIVENESS

Coutinho is still finding his feet at Barcelona, which is understandable given this was only his second start for his new club. At times on Sunday he showed his class with some neat touches, composed passing, clever link-up play with Luis Suarez, and on one occasion, a classic Coutinho strike from distance that cannoned off the crossbar. But he faded in the second half, failing to provide any spark as conditions worsened and Barcelona looked headed for a first La Liga loss of the season.

Coutinho struggled in tough conditions at Espanyol.

Coutinho struggled in tough conditions at Espanyol.

KEY MOMENTS

22nd min, SHOT: So nearly Coutinho’s moment. A trademark strike as Coutinho controlled a pass and then went for goal from just outside the box, but his powerful, curling shot came thundering off the bar.

61st min, CHANCE: The only time Coutinho looked threatening in the second half. He picked up the ball just outside the box and went for a clever dinked pass to Suarez. The Uruguayan was able to pivot and find enough space to take a shot that would have left Coutinho with a deserved assist for his moment of genius, but the shot was straight at the keeper.

VERDICT: 6/10

Coutinho returned to the club which kick-started his European club career, but if he thought he’d feel comfortable in the familiar surroundings of Espanyol, that wasn’t to be the case. He started brightly, nearly getting his first Barcelona goal only to be denied by the woodwork, but as the game went on and conditions worsened, the Brazilian had less and less of an impact.

Nonetheless, it was at least a marginal improvement on his last league game, when he was hauled off with half an hour to go while Barcelona were still trailing against Alaves. As he settles in and gets to know his teammates better, he will no doubt deliver on the potential that made Barcelona make him their record signing.

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Three takeaways as Ernesto Valverde sets new Barcelona record after derby draw

Andy West 5/02/2018
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Barcelona fought to hard-earned 1-1 draw in the derby against Espanyol.

In a game that would have appealed to the traditionalists, Espanyol and Barcelona played out a gritty 1-1 draw amidst pouring rain that left Espanyol’s home pitch almost unplayable.

Espanyol took the lead thanks to Gerard Moreno’s header and for a while it looked like Barcelona were headed for their first La Liga defeat of the season. But Gerard Pique, who has had a needling relationship with Espanyol’s fans, scored a late equaliser to ensure it was honours even in the Barcelona derby.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

FLOODBATH OVERCOMES FOOTBALL

By the end this barely resembled a game of football, with a rain drenched pitch covered in standing water completely preventing any kind of constructive passing football and forcing both teams into a hopeful hit and hope long game.

Naturally, this suited Espanyol far more than Barcelona, who had to abandon their usual approach of building out from the back in the fear that the ball would become stuck in one of the deep puddles that liberally littered the centre of the pitch.

After the home team grabbed the lead through Moreno’s excellent header it was hard to see how Barca would get back into the game considering the difficulties they had in constructing attacks, and in truth it would have been impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions even if they had lost. But their persistence to find a way to score was a tribute to their character, and a draw was the right result from a full blooded game full of desire but understandably lacking in attacking quality.

Even Lionel Messi struggled to transcend the conditions.

Even Lionel Messi struggled to transcend the conditions.

PIQUE TAKES CENTRE STAGE

Gerard Pique has long been public enemy number one among Espanyol fans, with his forthright political views and eagerness to poke fun at his near neighbours always assured of provoking ire.

The central defender had further enraged the home supporters before kick off by joking that Espanyol are not even from Barcelona at all but Cornella, a suburb of the city where their new stadium is located.

So it was entirely predictable that he was furiously whistled every time he touched the ball from the opening whistle and throughout the game, and equally expected that he played a pivotal role in the outcome by securing a point with an excellent header.

He was then on the receiving end of a violent challenge from Espanyol scorer Gerard Moreno which really should have resulted in a straight red card but only led to a yellow, and then nearly came to blows with the home team striker after making a comment to him before play restarted.

By the end of it all the whistles and jeers against Pique were louder than ever, and there’s no sign of a thaw in his relations with his crosstown rivals.

Gerard Pique was the villain of the piece.

Gerard Pique was the villain of the piece.

VALVERDE OUTPACES GUARDIOLA

The draw set a new club record as Barcelona recorded their 22nd game without defeat, outstripping the 21 games achieved by Pep Guardiola’s team in 2009/10 as the longest unbeaten start to the season in club history.

Beating a record set by Guardiola is quite a coup for Valverde, was initially met with indifference after his appointment but has now quickly earned the respect and admiration of his new team’s fans for his perceptive and intelligent management.

Valverde has been able to instil a much greater collective team structure during his half-season in charge, with his team’s results reflecting their solid organisation all over the pitch. And on this occasion they had to show their ability to adapt, with the unplayable nature of the flooded pitch in the second half prohibiting Barca’s preferred style of play.

And although they eventually earned a point more through sheer guts than style, that kind of never say die character will be crucial in determining whether they can end the season by replicating another of Guardiola’s achievements: winning the treble.

Valverde has surpassed expectations at Barcelona.

Valverde has surpassed expectations at Barcelona.

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