Xavi’s Barça take the Catalan derby but not without nerves and fortune
Espanyol will have grievances over soft penalty decision and misfiring forwards
It’s a new dawn at FC Barcelona, as the Xavi Hernández era is officially underway. The Catalan derby went the way of FC Barcelona with a 1-0 win thanks to Memphis Depay’s penalty.
It was a night of optimism, excitement, and eventually plenty of nerves, as the home side rode out a narrow victory which had them at times thanking their luck.
Xavi hailed his players' "attitude", "efforts", and "values" after the game that saw him pick up his first victory as Barcelona manager.
A total of 74,418 supporters packed into the Camp Nou to watch the first Catalan derby in a year and a half, and the first in front of fans in almost two years.
Much has happened in that time: Barça’s catastrophic finances has led to a former president resigning and the loss of their all-time greatest player. Meanwhile, Espanyol spent a year in the second division only to come straight back up as champions.
The blaugrana have suffered a severe fall from grace, while the pericos seem to be on a strong upward trajectory since rebuilding in the second division.
Gleeful anticipation sparkled in the air in the surroundings of the stadium before the game.
The Barcelona team bus arriving at Camp Nou was welcomed by thousands of boisterous fans lighting flares and fireworks. Plenty of chants were sung in honour of their home-coming new manager.
Throughout the encounter, Barça dominated proceedings, playing most of the game in the surroundings of the Espanyol box and looking for gaps to emerge. It was an opening reminiscent of Xavi’s time as a player under Pep Guardiola, with Barcelona displaying masterful levels of ‘tiki-taka’ at times.
In the post-match press conference, Xavi told reporters he was very pleased with how the evening went and highlighted the efforts and sacrifice that his players put into the game to come out on top.
He also praised his young players for the work they've put in, and acclaimed their talents. The big surprise of Xavi’s first starting XI was 17-year-old debutant Ilias Akhomach, who started alongside fellow teenagers Nico and Gavi.
However, the visitors understood the assignment well, and soaked up pressure excellently, rarely losing concentration and countering strongly on the break led by the finesse control of Raúl de Tomás.
The winning penalty came about from a brilliant through-ball from 17-year-old Gavi, who was all-action throughout the game, to the onrushing Memphis Depay, who was adjudged to have been fouled, but in truth, Barcelona could count their blessings to be given the chance to take the lead from 12 yards.
Can this Barcelona side win La Liga? "I'm optimistic, why not?" Xavi responded following the full-time whistle. "We're far from the top, but there's still a lot of games to play."
Espanyol rue luck and missed chances
By the full-time whistle, it was Espanyol who had created the more clear-cut chances to score. Yet, the moral victory is all the pericos have to show for their efforts, as Memphis Depay’s penalty ended up being the only goal of the game.
However, Espanyol will be able to point to the face that the decision to award the penalty was a soft one.
That coupled with their squandered chances at the other end meant they would make their short journey home cursing their luck.
Especially in a frantic final fifteen minutes, Espanyol cranked up the pressure as they sniffed blood in the Barça back-line. Both Landry Dimata and Raúl de Tomás had huge opportunities to score from the air, but the ball refused to hit the net.
Raúl de Tomás in particular was excellent, and the former Real Madrid and Rayo Vallecano man had a couple of guilt-edge chances to score in each half but came up just short on each occasion.