Barcelona failed to regain their two-point lead at the top of LaLiga after Wu Lei scored a late equaliser for Espanyol in a 2-2 derby draw that saw Frenkie de Jong sent off for the visitors.
The champions fell behind 23 minutes into a contest they dominated but in which their best football was rarely in evidence against the division’s bottom club.
Thankfully for Ernesto Valverde, Luis Suarez was at his lethal best, instinctively making it 1-1 shortly before he brilliantly teed up Arturo Vidal for Barcelona’s second.
But after De Jong was shown a second yellow card, Espanyol ramped up the pressure and Wu clinched a precious point for LaLiga’s bottom club as he became the first Chinese player to score against Barca in a competitive game.
The result leaves the champions level on points with Real Madrid at the top of the table at the midway point of the season.
Barca were punished for their tepid start to the game when Marc Roca floated a free-kick into the box where David Lopez lost his marker and beat Neto with a glancing header into the far corner of the net from 12 yards.
The visitors dominated the ball as they so often do in LaLiga but failed to threaten until five minutes from half-time when Lionel Messi headed into Diego Lopez’s arms shortly before Suarez toe-poked a low shot onto the outside of the post.
The equaliser came swiftly after the restart, Jordi Alba landing a deliciously weighted pass onto Suarez’s instep, and the Uruguay international’s first-time finish tucked the ball just inside Diego Lopez’s near post.
Suarez somehow managed to better Alba’s cross when he deftly chipped the ball with the outside of his right boot to substitute Arturo Vidal, whose powerful header bulged the net despite Diego Lopez getting a hand to it.
He got both hands to Suarez’s next shot, a powerful rising drive from 12 yards after Messi put him through, the Espanyol keeper palming the ball away from danger.
De Jong received his second yellow card for a shirt-pull on Jonathan Calleri and Espanyol exploited the additional space with three minutes left.
Matias Vargas played Wu into the area and the China international rifled a low shot into the left corner of the net from a tight angle to rescue a point that his side deserved for their perseverance and bravery against new coach Abelardo’s old team.
What does it mean? Entertainment and points in short supply under Valverde
As long as Barca are winning, Valverde’s slow, suffocating style of play will be tolerated by the Blaugrana faithful.
But the champions have won just one of their past four league games while playing poorly and if they fall behind Madrid in the title race there will be calls for the coach’s head.
Suarez turns the tide
All it took was two touches from Suarez to change the game: one to steer Alba’s pass into the net and one to carve out an unmissable chance for Vidal. Suarez’s incisiveness covered for quiet performances from Messi and Antoine Griezmann, but it was not quite enough.
Fati fancies Griezmann’s place
With Ousmane Dembele injured, Griezmann was an obvious choice in Barcelona’s front three but the France international’s latest quiet game that will add weight to the calls for teenage winger Ansu Fati to be given more opportunities.
Key Opta Facts
– Wu Lei has become the first Chinese player to score against Barcelona in a competitive game.
– Luis Suarez has been involved in each of Barcelona’s past 10 goals in LaLiga (four goals and six assists).
– Frenkie de Jong has been sent off for the first time in 78 games in the Eredivisie (59) and LaLiga (19).
– Barcelona have just won three out of their seven LaLiga games without Marc-Andre ter Stegen on the pitch since the 2016-2017 season (W3 D2 L2). That’s 42.8 per cent without him compared to 72.2 per cent with the German keeper.
– The last time Lionel Messi made as many shots without scoring than against Espanyol (five shots) in a LaLiga game was against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in March 2019 (six shots).
– Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann has played 15 games against Espanyol in LaLiga without providing an assist, more than against any other opponent in the competition.
Barcelona are in action in Jeddah on Thursday when they face Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana semi-finals, while Espanyol have over a week to recover before their Copa del Rey clash with Segunda Division side SS Reyes on January 12.
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