Barcelona slip up at their crosstown rivals Espanyol

AP, BARCELONA, SPAIN

Tue, Jan 10, 2012 - Page 20

Barcelona slipped five points behind La Liga leaders Real Madrid after an 86th-minute equalizer by substitute Alvaro Vazquez gave RCD Espanyol a 1-1 draw against the defending champions on Sunday.

With Lionel Messi relatively anonymous for Barcelona, midfielder Cesc Fabregas continued his scoring ways by heading home a Daniel Alves cross to put Barcelona ahead after 16 minutes at the Estadio Cornella-El Prat.

Barcelona looked certain to take the three points as they controlled the city derby, but Thievy Fibouma flicked on Raul Rodriguez’s cross for Vazquez to guide home the equalizer four minutes from time.

Barcelona nearly stole the victory at the death when first Gerard Pique hit the crossbar in the 90th minute and then Rodriguez appeared to handle Pedro Rodriguez’s shot on the follow-up.

“The team played hard and at the end we got the draw we deserved,” Vazquez said. “We arrived alive to the last minutes and we had that little bit of luck.”

Espanyol have been Barcelona’s toughest opponents over the past five seasons — taking more league points off their crosstown rivals than any other club — and the European champions continued to look vulnerable on the road. Pep Guardiola’s side have taken only 13 of 24 points from eight away games.

Messi, who seemed certain to win his third straight Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player later yesterday, managed his only shot in the 77th minute. The Argentina forward was booked for handling in the 13th minute after stealing from Cristian Alvarez to feed Fabregas for a goal that was disallowed.

“The other day he played only a little, so [his play] was not because of [fatigue],” Guardiola said of Messi, before turning his attention to Real Madrid’s advantage. “There’s a lot of league left to play, a lot of points. We can recover from this.”

Guardiola, who was expected to win the FIFA award for best coach later yesterday, started the same 11 that beat Real Madrid last month, with Andres Iniesta returning from a leg muscle injury, but Espanyol held firm early on and looked to counter, with Victor Valdes clearing Joan Verdu’s header off the line in the sixth minute, with the Barcelona defense scrambling to keep out Verdu’s follow-up.

Three minutes after the disallowed goal, Fabregas scored his ninth league goal and his seventh in six games after connecting with a cross from Alves, who was subjected to racist chants from sections of the home fans during the match.

Fabregas continued to create Barcelona’s best chances, with Alvarez saving just before halftime.

Verdu and Romaric N’Dri both hit shots over for the hosts, while Barcelona defenders Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol blocked shots from Sergio Garcia and Thievy Bifouma.

Bifouma was unlucky to be whistled for a foul as he battled with Puyol inside Barcelona’s area as the hosts found some second-half momentum.

“We applied a lot of pressure and tried to take the ball away, and at the end we had a little bit of luck,” Vazquez said.

Espanyol continued to press for the equalizer and Bifouma was tripped up inside the area without being awarded a penalty moments before Vazquez’s heroics, although the hosts conceded they were fortunate not to concede a late spot-kick.

“The ball hit my hand, but I’m not the referee,” Rodriguez said.

Meantime, Jose Antonio Reyes’ return to Sevilla was spoiled by Rayo Vallecano de Madrid, as the promoted side won 2-1 to snap a four-game losing streak.

Miguel “Michu” Perez and Raul Tamudo put Rayo in command, before Julien Escude pulled one back for Sevilla.

“Taking into account that [Reyes] was playing with new teammates and that he hadn’t played much recently, he played well,” Sevilla coach Marcelino Garcia said of the former Arsenal player, who returned to his boyhood club from Atletico Madrid on Thursday.

Elsewhere, Valencia came from two goals down to draw 2-2 at Villarreal in coach Jose Molina’s debut for el Submarino Amarillo. Athletic Bilbao drew 0-0 at Getafe and Real Betis Balompie beat nine-man Sporting de Gijon 2-0 for a third straight win.

Villarreal remain winless in nine consecutive games in all competitions, while Valencia stay in third place, nine points behind league leaders Real Madrid.

Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente returned after missing seven games with a left-knee injury and teammate Iker Muniain set the record for the youngest player to have made 100 La Liga appearances at the age of 19 years, 20 days.