Barcelona lost valuable ground in the title race as they were held to a thrilling 1-1 draw away at Catalan rivals Espanyol on Sunday evening. Having seen Real Madrid's lead stretched to six points after they emphatically defeated Granada 5-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu, Barcelona knew a win was necessary if they were to strengthen their title aspirations.
Barcelona had thrashed their neighbourhood opponents 5-1 in this exact fixture last season but this season's contest would tell a different story as Mauricio Pochettino's men produced a bold and determined display to claim a deserved point. David Villa and Ibrahim Afellay were Barcelona's only long-term casualties as Pep Guardiola was allowed to pick from a first-choice starting eleven, naming the same side which claimed that vital 3-1 victory in the El Clasico.
Roared on by a fervent home support, Espanyol started the brightest and nearly opened the scoring in the fifth minute when they were twice thwarted by Barcelona's rearguard. Victor Valdes came to his side's rescue when he palmed away Verdú's header at the back post and Gerard Pique was then on hand to make a goal-saving clearance when Verdú's second attempt had left Valdes stranded.
Barcelona were then disallowed a goal after Messi had intercepted Cristian Álvarez's goalkick and squared the ball for Cesc Fabregas who tapped into an empty net but the sharp eyes of the assistant spotted an infringement claiming the ball struck Messi's arm and the Argentinian was harshly cautioned.
However, Fabregas did claim his fourteenth goal of the season only moments later when he directed a header into the corner of the Espanyol net to send Los Blaugranes 1-0 ahead. Barcelona, in typical free-flowing fashion, spread the ball from the left to the right hand flank where Dani Alves delivered a sumptuous cross and the former Arsenal captain burst into the box to send a bullet-header past Álvarez who would perhaps feel that he could have got a stronger hand to the effort. Nonetheless, it was a well-crafted opening goal for Guardiola's side, who have looked vulnerable on their travels this season, with Fabregas proving to be a more and more valuable asset each time he plays. Goals in his first El Clasico and Catalan derby matches are a testament to his blossoming ability.
Sergio García stung the palms of Valdes with a long-range effort after the restart as Espanyol worked tirelessly to stamp their authority on the game. Eric Abidal was then on hand to produce a fantastic block to deny Thievy Bufoum as Los Periquitos continued to pour forward in numbers. Andres Iniesta and an outrageous piece of skill from Fabregas nearly extended Barcelona's lead but the half ended with the Catalan champions in front although they were certainly not home and dry.
Both teams continued to press in the second half as the game became an attractive display of attacking football with both sides going close. Alves and Verdú both had half-chances before Alves was adjudged to have been offside after he had rounded the keeper and scored after an incise through ball from Iniesta.
In the 76th minute, Messi saw his right-footed shot from an acute angle strike the post after great work down the left-side by the substitute Pedro as Barcelona struggled to find that elusive two-goal cushion.
And it proved costly as Espanyol claimed an 86th minute equaliser courtesy of the forehead of young substitute Álvaro. Raúl Rodriguez marauded down the right wing and whipped in a cross to the near post which was flicked on by Thievy Bifoum and converted into the net by the 20-year-old Spanish striker after he had lost his marker Carles Puyol. The stadium erupted into a frenzy as fans and players alike celebrated an important goal which lifted their club into eighth place in the La Liga table. Pep Guardiola was left bemused, rueing his side's profligacy as Barcelona's troubled away form continued.
There was still time however for a spot of controversy as Barcelona sprang into life for the dying minutes, eager to catch up on Mourinho's Galacticos. Messi played a ball into the path of the onrushing Pique who saw his shot crash against the crossbar and the rebound fell to Pedro whose goalbound effort was blocked by the arm of Raúl Rodriguez before Iniesta curled wide. The Barcelona players were furious with the referee, adamant that the penalty should have been given and in truth, they had a case.
It nearly got worse for Barcelona in the final minute when that man again, Raúl Rodriguez, flicked a corner on at the near post but it just crept over Valdes's crossbar. It was to be the final action of an intense and enthralling derby match and one that inevitably was met by rapturous applause from the home crowd. Barcelona need to drastically improve their away record if they are to retain their La Liga crown as the power begins to shift towards Madrid.