Barca fire derby blanks to give Real title hopeBy: PHIL SEERY
MADRID – Champions Barcelona let Real Madrid firmly back into La Liga title race following a 0-0 draw at neighbours Espanyol on Saturday meaning Madrid could move to within one point of their rivals with a home win over Valencia yesterday.
Barca had Brazilian full back Dani Alves sent off on the hour mark and the treble winners failed to score in the league for the first time in six months and Real can now chop their four-point lead down to just one point.
It was the first derby at Espanyol’s Cornella El-Prat Stadium and a bad one for Barcelona who saw a run of seven straight wins come to an end as they failed to find the back of the net in La Liga for the first time since a 0-0 draw at Valencia on October 17. Coach Pep Guardiola will hope the draw is just a blip as his side – who have beaten Real twice this season – look to get over the finishing line with just five games left in the season.
Barcelona have a huge game now on Tuesday in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Inter Milan at the San Siro. Atletico Madrid are Spain’s other representatives in Europe but fell to a 2-1 defeat at Villarreal ahead of Thursday’s Europa League semi-final first leg against Liverpool at the Vicente Calderon.
First half goals from Diego Godin and Giuseppe Rossi helped Villarreal go sixth, a point ahead of Athletic Bilbao. Sergio “Kun” Aguero pulled a goal back for Atletico on 64 minutes but it was not enough and their 15 league losses leave them nine points back of Villarreal with the Kings Cup final looking their best route into Europe.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was back on the Barca substitutes bench after missing the last four games through injury and with no recognised target-man Lionel Messi played down the middle. Barca hit the crossbar in the eighth minute with Pedro’s mis-hit cross crashing off the top of the woodwork to safety. Pedro had scored in his last two league matches but it was clear that he was not going for a goal on this occasion.
Forward Pablo Osvaldo had a chance for the hosts but shot over when well placed and Joan Verdu glanced a header wide on 26 minutes. Barca were not at the races in the first half and goalkeeper Victor Valdes pulled off a fine stop just before half-time to keep the scores level.
A cross from the left found Osvaldo in the penalty area but the striker’s side-footed effort was pushed on to the post brilliantly by Valdes. Valdes has been in excellent form this season to help Barca have the best defensive record in the league and prompt calls for a Spain call-up ahead of this summer’s World Cup.
Ibrahimovic came on late but a curling effort from Messi was the closest the visitors came to an unlikely win.
Elsewhere, Sevilla climbed up to fourth with a comfortable 3-0 home win over nine man Sporting Gijon on Saturday taking them two points above Real Mallorca in the Champions League race.
Sevilla had lost to lowly Valladolid on Tuesday but bounced back with an early goal from Mali international forward Frederic Kanoute putting them ahead before Luis Fabiano and Juan Cala scored second half goals to push Sevilla into fourth.
Mallorca, two points behind in fifth, can go back into fourth place with a home victory over Osasuna today.