What: Spanish La Liga
Who: Barcelona vs Espanyol
When: Sunday 6th January, 2013, at 18:00 UK time
Where: Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain

High Hopes

After a splendid start to the new season, Barcelona will want to keep running at full throttle as they attempt to regain the league crown they lost to their fierce foes Real Madrid last term. Sixteen points ahead of Los Blancos and having widened the gap with second-placed Atletico Madrid to nine points, the title is all but set to come back to Catalonia. Now, Tito Vilanova’s side host Espanyol for their first match of the new year.

Good news surrounded Barcelona recently as Vilanova led the team’s second training session of the year following an emergency operation on his parotid gland on 20th December. The coach’s likely return will only fuel Barcelona’s thirst for glory and allow them to extend their superb domestic form.

The Blaugrana find themselves on a great home run, having won 20 of their last 22 league games at the Camp Nou, with the setbacks being the 2-1 loss to Real Madrid last April and the 2-2 draw with Los Merengues this past October. Furthermore, recent league clashes with Espanyol in the Barcelona derby have ended in their favour, with Barcelona winning four of their last five derbies. However, goalkeeper Victor Valdes refused to belittle the importance of this clash. “It is always an important match, whether at home or in Cornella, especially for the local players, who are so used to matches against Espanyol”, he said.

Relegation Strugglers

With 17 league games disputed so far, Espanyol find themselves in an uneasy predicament as they have just 15 points to their name. Occupying 18th position in the Spanish league table, Los Periquitos know that they have to improve their game should they want to escape the relegation zone and modify their aspirations for the new season.

It is often said that form goes out of the window when derbies are involved, but Espanyol will certainly be expecting a tough visit to the Camp Nou. The four-time Copa del Rey winners have just one win to their name on the road so far – a 1-0 victory against Real Sociedad on 4th November. Furthermore, this win is a solitary one in their last 18 games away from home.

However, forward Sergio Garcia believes that all options are available when the two teams meet. “It is not impossible to score”, he said. “We are humble and work hard. The game at the Bernabeu [the 2-2 draw against Real Madrid] is a reference. Nobody expected anything from us, but we got a draw we deserved.”

Doubt remains over the fitness of first-choice goalkeeper Cristian Alvarez. The custodian has been missing for some time now and his return would be a boost for Espanyol.

Recent form

Cordoba 0-2 Barcelona (12/12; Copa del Rey)
Barcelona 4-1 Atletico Madrid (16/12; La Liga)
Real Valladolid 1-3 Barcelona (22/12; La Liga)

Espanyol 2-2 Sevilla (07/12; La Liga)
Real Madrid 2-2 Espanyol (16/12; La Liga)
Espanyol 2-0 Deportivo La Coruna (20/12; La Liga)

Key absences

Barcelona: Isaac Cuenca; Marc Muniesa; Eric Abidal

Espanyol: Wakaso Mubarak; Cristian Alvarez (doubt)

Players to watch

Barcelona – Lionel Messi: The Argentine scored a goal in his side’s last victory against Real Valladolid. With the FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony approaching, Messi is set to retain the accolade for a record fourth consecutive time ahead of Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo. Against Barcelona’s town rivals, he will get a chance to remind everyone why he is considered the best in the world.

Espanyol – Victor Sanchez: The Catalan midfielder will have a special occasion ahead of him as he prepares to meet his formative club. Having been deemed surplus to requirements a few seasons ago at Barcelona, he is now a regular player for Espanyol. Defensive by nature, he will have a tough task of upsetting Lionel Messi and the rest of the Barcelona juggernaut.

Match Prediction

Los Cules will want to start 2013 in similar fashion to the way 2012 ended. The return of Vilanova to the dugout, as well as Messi’s quasi-definite success in the 2012 Ballon d’Or ceremony will raise already sky-high spirits at the Camp Nou. It is very, very hard to see Espanyol even coming away with a point. Barcelona 4-0 Espanyol.

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