Barcelona set to put Espanyol to the sword in the battle of Catalunya

Barcelona v Espanyol, La Liga, December 12, 2009

Barcelona 2/13; Draw 26/5; Espanyol 14/1

Both Real Madrid and Valencia will have their fingers and toes crossed on Saturday night in the belief that Espanyol can rise to the occasion for the Barcelona derby, and pull off a shock result at the Nou Camp against Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola’s unbeaten champions are sitting pretty at the top of the Spanish top flight having already established a five-point lead over Real Madrid, and a win in the Barcelona derby would see the team extend its unbeaten record to 15 games, matching a feat it achieved in the 1984-85 season. By contrast their city neighbours Espanyol are struggling to get going this campaign, occupying lowly 14th spot in the table having lost their last four consecutive matches without scoring a goal.

Yet, Espanyol’s challenge should not be dismissed out of hand as the Periquitos faced a similarly sticky situation when they travelled to face Barca last year as the bottom-placed club. In one of the biggest shocks of the season last year, Espanyol’s aggressive, physical approach disrupted the eventual treble-winners on their home turf, and the blue and whites stole a shock 2-1 victory thanks to a glorious double from the Little Budda, Ivan de la Pena. (Espanyol are 33/1 to repeat the scoreline.)

This year, however, they come into the game after consecutive 4-0 hammerings at the hands of Racing Santander and Atletico Madrid, leaving Espanyol without any sort of victory since their 2-1 defeat of Tenerife back at the end of October.

Visiting coach Mauricio Pochettino also has to contend with a number of selection headaches, as striker Raul Tamudo, midfielders Ivan de la Pena and Jose Fernando Marques, and defender David Garcia are all set to be absent from the city derby with injuries.

Fans of English football will have to wait to see if Shunsuke Nakamura (20/1 to score first, 7/1 to score anytime), who has yet to break his duck for his new club, will get a starting berth in midfield alongside the likes of Luis Garcia (7/1 to score) and the young and exciting Jose Maria Callejon (5/1 to score).

Further forward, ex-Chelsea striker Ben Sahar (16/1 to score first, 6/1 to score anytime) will be searching for his second goal of the campaign as he battles for a role up-top against Coro and the club’s current leading goalscorer, Ivan Alonso (25/1 to score & Espanyol win), who has a pitiful three goals to his name.

Turning to the hosts, Barcelona are sweating over the fitness of Leo Messi (17/10 to score & Barcelona win) after the pocket-sized Argentine twisted an ankle away to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League on Wednesday. With Barca not set to play their next league match until January as they head off the to FIFA Club World Cup, Guardiola make opt to leave Messi out of harms way against Espanyol in order to give his star-player some recouperation time before they head off to the UAE.

Even without Messi, Barca’s embarrassment of riches should be more than enough to see them claim another three points in the league. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (3/1 to score first & Barcelona win) is on fire having netted 11 goals (and four assists) in his opening 18 games for the Catalans, while other forward options range from the experienced Frenchman Thierry Henry (7/1 to score a brace), to the burgeoning talent of starlet Pedro Rodriguez (7/1 to score first, 2/1 to score anytime), while forgotten man Bojan Krkic (6/5 to score) could be in line for a rare league appearance.

In the middle of the park Barca will field four out of Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita, Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta (11/1 to score first & Barcelona win), while the settled back-four of Dani Alves, Puyol, Pique and Eric Abidal will aim to protect Victor Valdes between the sticks.

With Espanyol in such poor form of late and Barcelona riding so high, anything other than a comfortable Barcelona win will come as a major shock.

101predicts: Barcelona 5 – Espanyol 0 (14/1)

Barcelona 2/13; Draw 26/5; Espanyol 14/1

Full match odds here.