Remember, if you can, back to the beginning of 2016. FC Barcelona, fresh off a Club World Cup trophy, sat top of the table, already well into an unbeaten streak that would last into spring. Though Atlético Madrid had pulled within a point, it didn’t look like their toothless attack in the wake of the failed Jackson Martínez transfer could sustain a real title challenge, and Real Madrid was a hot mess under Rafa Benitez. If football crossed your mind mid-midnight kiss—well, first off, you should reevaluate your priorities, but you probably felt pretty good about Barça’s coming year.
That changed January 2, when Barça visited RCD Espanyol for a derby that reeked of a collective cava hangover. Though Luis Enrique fielded his best eleven, they struggled to create chances against the Periquitos’ interception-happy midfield and plenty of last-ditch defending, with Javi López putting in an especially strong shift at right back. Espanyol hacked their way to 22 fouls and five yellows—about par for the derbi barceloní, really—while Barcelona’s two best chances nicked the woodwork. The match ended in a scoreless draw that sent Atleti to the top of the table, and for a moment it looked like the blaugrana were in for another rough January.
Fortunately, redemption was quick. The teams played twice more that month in a Copa del Rey tie that only took one leg to decide. At the Camp Nou, Espanyol brought a bit of the old ultraviolence and had two players sent off—though not the goalkeeper Pau López, who stomped on a supine Lionel Messi’s knee and walked away unpunished. The match was a mess, but a lopsided mess, and Barça easily put away their nine-man opponent, 4-1. By the following week’s return to the Cornellà, it barely mattered that Luis Suárez had received a ban when no one called someone a nothing in the tunnel. Munir El Haddadi scored a brace for Barça’s second-string lineup, and Espanyol looked like they barely had any fight left in them. “You’re short” was the best trash talk Álvaro González could muster toward Messi, whose riposte was as perfect as his play: “You’re bad at football.”
Espanyol is bad at football, it’s true, but they have a long and colorful history of being a thorn in Barcelona’s side. Win tomorrow’s derby at home, and Barça will be in position to claim the league on the last day. Succumb to the pressure of the moment, and they’ll give the Periquitos another ugly feather in their cap. The promise of Barcelona’s 2016 has yet to be fulfilled, but a few more hours of good football could change that.
April was cruel to Espanyol, who went winless for the month, but last week’s victory over Sevilla put them well clear of the relegation zone. This match will be purely about inflicting pain on their rivals. The entire eleven from January’s league draw is available to Constantin Gâlcă, though the 21-year-old Joan Jordán has fallen out of favor lately and will likely be replaced in defensive midfield by Víctor Sánchez or Óscar Duarte, as Abraham González is out with a hamstring injury.
Possible XI: Pau – López, González, Roco, Álvarez – Sánchez, Diop – Pérez, Burgui, Asensio – Caicedo
Claudio Bravo is out with a calf injury picked up at the end of the Real Betis match, but otherwise it’s business as usual for Luis Enrique’s team, who are playing for both the league and their pride.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen – Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba – Rakitić, Busquets, Iniesta – Messi, Suárez, Neymar