Espanyol come into the game in good form having avoided defeat in their last ten matches in all competitions (four wins, six draws). That record is even better in away games with their sole defeat coming against Sevilla when they lost 6-4. Since then they have avoided defeat in their last seven away games (six in La Liga) and their defensive record has been superb with no goals conceded in their last five La Liga away games.

Espanyol haven’t got a great record in recent times against Barcelona with no wins in their last 16 competitive meetings. Barcelona have won 13 of those games with the other three being drawn. For Espanyol’s last win over Barcelona you have to go back to February 2009 when they won 2-1 in a league game at Camp Nou in what was an ill tempered match. On that day the referee handed out 13 yellow cards and one red card with Seydou Keita receiving his marching orders in the first half which meant Barça had to play most of the match with ten men. Two goals from Ivan De La Pena put the visitors 2-0 up before Yaya Toure reduced the deficit but the ten men were unable to get the equaliser and Espanyol picked up the three points.

With Espanyol’s poor record in the derby many will expect a comfortable win for Barcelona but they have been difficult to beat under Quique Sánchez Flores and in recent seasons Espanyol have been extremely aggressive against Barcelona. Espanyol are obviously not as technically gifted as Barça but what they lack in technique they will more than make up for in physicality and if Barcelona aren’t up for the battle they could easily drop points in this game.

Flores should have most of his squad available for the trip across the city with the only possible doubts being Victor Álvarez, Leo Baptistâo and Hernán Pérez. Álvarez will be unlikely to be involved even if he is fit but Baptistâo and Pérez would both be considered for a starting role should they be available to do so. Baptistâo, in particular, has been in good form with three goals and three assists and the Brazilian has been one of Espanyol’s best performers this season. His partnership with Gerard Moreno (six goals) has been excellent, with the two providing a solid pairing up front which has allowed Pablo Piatti to score five goals and assist on seven goals from the wing. Some others who have impressed for Espanyol this season include former Real Madrid goalkeeper, Diego López, Victor Sánchez and the young full back Aarón Martín. With so many performing well for the Periquitos they will prove to be a difficult opponent for Barça.

Barcelona will be aiming to reduce the gap at the top of La Liga to three points with their title rivals, Real Madrid, not in league action this weekend due to FIFA Club World Cup commitments in Japan. Two years ago Barcelona found themselves in a similar situation with a seemingly invincible Real Madrid cruising toward the league title during their long consecutive run of victories under Carlo Ancelotti. Back then the FIFA Club World Cup and Christmas break seemed to ruin Madrid’s momentum and they lost their first game after Christmas to Valencia. Barça didn’t punish them there and then by losing to Real Sociedad in that now infamous night at the Anoeta but it was the catalyst for a switch in momentum over the remainder of the season. That defeat seemed like rock bottom for Luis Enrique’s tenure at Barcelona and many would have sacked him there and then but that result marked a turnaround as Barça went on a good run of their own and a now vulnerable Real Madrid were passed in La Liga with Luis Enrique’s men adding the Champions League and Copa del Rey for the clubs second treble. Barcelona would do well to remember what happened two years ago and a win here will see the gap reduced which might just put a little pressure on their title rivals.

Barcelona come into this game after winning their last two games which will have lifted spirits after a run of four draws in five games. That run of draws has saw them fall off the pace in La Liga but the season isn’t even half way through yet so there is no need for panic although naturally that won’t stop Cules panicking anyway.

Panic amongst Barcelona fans is almost as much a part of the clubs DNA as is playing in the style of the legendary Johan Cruyff. Naturally this panic leads to criticism of the players, management and other club officials with Neymar, in particular, receiving the brunt of it at the moment. The truth is he hasn’t scored as many goals this season with just four so far but in terms of his general play this writer is of the belief that the criticism of him is extremely harsh. The biggest problem for Neymar in recent weeks was he was left rather isolated in the games when Andrés Iniesta was injured. Other than Iniesta none of the other midfielders seem prepared to get themselves as far forward in support of the attack and this has left Neymar on the left wing while his fellow attackers are generally in a crowded area (many of Barcelona’s opponents this season have played three central defenders) in the centre of the pitch. This has left the Brazilian with the option of either playing a long pass into an area where his team mates are outnumbered or to run with the ball himself which has often saw him run into trouble as defenders double up on him and he loses possession. With Iniesta back in the team this will help Neymar who now has the option of playing a shorter pass to Iniesta and then use his movement to try to create another opening.

Luis Enrique has almost a full squad at his disposal this week with only French defender, Jeremy Mathieu missing out due to an ongoing injury. Barcelona had no competitive game in midweek but the squad did take part in a friendly in Qatar against Al Ahli. The first team squad were all present as part of the contract although nobody played more than 60 minutes as Luis Enrique gave everyone in his squad a run out. Perhaps the most notable thing from the 5-3 victory was Paco Alcàcer scored his first goal in the Blaugrana. Obviously, as it wasn’t a competitive game it doesn’t count but it should boost his confidence ahead of a probable start on Wednesday in the second leg of the Copa del Rey tie against Hércules.

With no more league games in 2016 it is expected Luis Enrique will go with the best eleven he can. Therefore, the biggest question will be who will start alongside Sergio Busquets and Iniesta in midfield. Ivan Rakitic hasn’t been at his best this season and there is some feeling that Luis Enrique now prefers André Gomes to start in that role which remains to be seen. This writer's own preference would be that Rakitic keeps his place in the team but there is a need for the Croatian to get back to form as soon as possible. Otherwise the only other decision Luis Enrique has to make will be who partners Gerard Piqué in defence but it seems likely that Samuel Umtiti will get the nod there ahead of Javier Mascherano.

Barcelona simply cannot afford any more slip ups if they are to mount a serious challenge for the title in 2017. That and the fact this is the last league match of the year should ensure that Barça take no chances on Sunday and Luis Enrique will have his men fired up for what will no doubt be another physical derby. Barcelona need to match Espanyol’s effort in the early stages and if they can do that their superior ability should come into play which should see Barcelona run out comfortable winners. Anything less than 100% from Barcelona can and will be punished though and the onus will be on Luis Enrique to make sure his team are fully equipped for the challenges that Flores’ side will pose.

Referee

Sunday nights game will be refereed by Mateu Lahoz. Barça have won their last five games with Lahoz as referee. In those games he has gave Barcelona players 13 yellow cards, one red card (Jordi Alba v Espanyol) and awarded Barça one penalty. In Espanyol’s last five games with this referee they have won one, drew one and lost three. Lahoz has booked 23 Espanyol players, sent two off and awarded them one penalty.

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