A penalty from Lionel Messi was enough to lift Barcelona to a 1-0 win over city rivals Espanyol.
Barca were not at their best and were pushed hard by Espanyol, but Messi’s goal on 77 minutes was enough to lift them back to the top of La Liga ahead of Atletico Madrid’s trip to Athletic Bilbao later on Saturday.
The first chance of the contest fell to Espanyol, but Sergio Garcia snatched at his shot and it drifted wide of target.
Messi came close to firing Barca ahead on 17 minutes when he beat the offside trap to latch on to Dani Alves’ clever pass, but he sent his header over the bar.
It came as a surprise to see Messi miss the target. Shock was a better word to sum up the mood on 19 minutes when Neymar came up with an unbelievable miss. The Brazilian was found four yards out with the goal gaping, but he somehow sent his shot over the bar.
Espanyol came close to opening the scoring on 22 minutes, but Pizzi did not do justice to Sergio Garcia’s exquisite cross as he blasted wide from 10 yards.
There was a moment of controversy on 25 minutes, as Javier Mascherano caught Javi Lopez in the face with a flying arm, but Espanyol’s appeals for a penalty were waved away.
Neymar had another chance shortly before half-time, but he stabbed his shot wide of target.
HALFTIME! Somehow it is 0-0... It could be 4-4, and that's no joke! Neymar and Pizzi missing the best chances! And breathe...— AS English (@English_AS) March 29, 2014
The breathless nature of the first half was replaced with a calmer period of play at the start of the second 45, with chances in short supply.
Espanyol came into the game a mammoth 32 points adrift of their city rivals, but you would not have noticed that on the pitch as they more than matched Barcelona.
Alex Fernandez had a decent chance for Espanyol with 20 minutes remaining, but his shot lacked power and was easily fielded by Jose Pinto.
Fernandez was made to rue his miss, as Messi kept his cool to open the scoring from the penalty spot. It was an ice-cool finish, but there was controversy in the award as Javi Lopez was deemed to have handled in the box when tangling with Neymar.
Nothing Javi Lopez could have done to avert handball. Stupid decision based on a ridiculous La Liga stipulation. And it might decide title.— Paul Macdonald (@PaulMacdGoal) March 29, 2014
Espanyol's hopes of mounting a fightback were dented on 83 minutes, as their keeper Kiko Casilla was sent off for handling the ball outside his area, and Barca were able to hold on for victory.
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With seven games remaining in the Liga season, Barcelona lead Atletico by two points—although the latter do have a game in hand. They will meet on the final day of the season, where the title could well be decided.
Barca boss Tata Martino—according to Barcelona's official website—felt his side gained a valuable three points, but is not getting carried away.
I see one good thing and one bad thing. The good thing is that derbies are always derbies and they have to be won. It was a risky away game.
On the other hand, we still have very difficult (games) that are very important. We have seven finals left and we haven’t forgotten about our away game to Valladolid—we don’t want to commit the same errors.
I think it’s important for the players to remember where we were six days ago and where we are now.