Barca rivals get helping hand

IT was derby day in Barcelona on Sunday just as it was in Manchester.

And just as Chris Foy hobbled Manchester City’s hopes in the FA Cup, so his Spanishcounterpart Turienzo Alvarez punctured Barcelona’s league challenge.

Barcelona’s meetings with Espanyol might not enjoy the world renown of their battles against Real Madrid, but they are always big games, especially for the eternal underdogs in blue.

Relations between the two clubs have mellowed. Andres Iniesta memorably celebrated his winning goal in the World Cup final by tearing off his shirt to reveal a message in memory of his friend Dani Jarque, the Espanyol captain who died of a heart attack the previous year.

That gesture ensures a warm welcome for Iniesta from Espanyol fans — in contrast to the racist abuse of his Brazilian teammate Daniel Alves — but the rivalry remains a matter of nationalist pride.

Outsiders believe the myth, cultivated by some Barcelona fans, that Espanyol’s name is “anti-Catalan”. Quite the opposite in fact. Barcelona was a club founded by foreigners, Espanyol was founded by locals and took the name to show their local identity.

Barcelona’s proud boast is that they are “mes que un club” — more than a club. On Sunday, Espanyol fans found a nice retort with a huge banner draped from a stand declaring “Catalonia: more than a club.”

Their team seemed nervy at the start and were a goal down early on. The home side battled back and might have been level at half time with slightly better finishing, but as the game went on it looked as though Barcelona would take the points despite Messi being subdued and Xavi unable to find space.

With 10 minutes left Espanyol had to bring on their reserve keeper. It ought to have been the moment for Barcelona to pile on the pressure.

Instead, Pep Guardiola opted to bring on defensive midfielder Seydou Keita in place of their goalscorer Cesc Fabregas. Maybe his central defenders were distracted, maybe they were caught in two minds, because a minute later Espanyol equalised as Barcelona failed to deal with a cross from the right.

There was still time for one of their famous surges, but they lacked coolness in front of goal and when Pedro did thump the ball towards the net it struck Espanyol defender Raul Rodriguez on the arm.

His arms were raised, it looked like a penalty, Barcelona thought it was a penalty and Rodriguez himself agreed after the game: “It was handball, but I’m not the referee.”

Two points dropped at this stage of the season are not a disaster but Barcelona are now five behind Real Madrid, 5-1 winners against Granada on Saturday, so that decision might cost them dear.

Referee Turienzo has been involved in controversy before. The irony is that on previous occasions it has been at Madrid’s expense.

The most notorious occasion was in April 2007 when Fabio Capello’s side went to Santander in search of a win to keep in touch with Barcelona. A goal up, Madrid looked secure until Santander equalised thanks to a bizarre penalty decision and were then forced to chase the game. In the final minutes Turienzo sent off two Madrid players and they then conceded a second penalty to lose the game 2-1.

Spanish referees are routinely accused of favouring either Madrid or Barcelona but this was special. Turienzo needed police protection and went into hiding after a receiving dozens of threatening phone calls.

Then, last January, he hit the headlines again when he was selected to referee the Madrid derby and someone at the Spanish Football Federation unwisely commented on their website that his performance would be “under the watchful eye of Jose Mourinho, who considers himself prejudiced by referees over recent matches”.

Mourinho went ballistic and the Madrid PR department went into overdrive.

No comment from the Bernabeu this time of course, and Barcelona, perhaps fortunately, have the Golden Ball awards to distract them from any sense of injustice. But it does put Madrid back in the driving seat, and Barcelona must be worried about their away form.

At home they have yet to concede a goal. Away they have yielded a modest 13 points from 8 games. Moreover they have played one away game less than Madrid and have two consecutive away games coming up when Madrid are at home.

The war of nerves starts now.

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