It may not be all over, but Barcelona took a strangehold on their Copa del Rey tie with city rival Espanyol on Wednesday night. Lionel Messi scored twice before Gerard Pique and Neymar found the back of the net in the second half to produce a 4-1 first leg victory.
Felipe Caicedo’s goal gives Espanyol a whiff of hope when the second leg comes next Wednesday at Espanyol, but few will expect Barcelona to falter with a place in the quarterfinals the reward for an aggregate victory.
"We have played well and we have achieved the objective we have for the game," Barcelona manager Luis Enrique was pleased to admit after the win. "It’s normal there is tension. It’s a derby and we have our rivalry."
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Luis Enrique clearly wanted to make this two-leg tie safe as soon as possible, choosing his strongest possible attacking formation for the encounter. In addition to giving Arda Turan a start in his first game available after the FIFA-imposed transfer ban expired, the Catalans’ boss elected to field Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez as the usual trident up front. Aleix Vidal made is debut, too, coming on as a substitute for Dani Alves in the 67th minute on the first night that he was eligible to play.
The visitors were in no mood to be swept aside by their city rivals, whom they had held to a 0-0 draw in the league the preceding weekend, but it was always a big ask. In a match where tempers often were on edge as the old rivals gave no quarter, Espanyol made a match of it for a half. But with Andres Iniesta in fine form, Turan fitting into the creative midfield neatly and Messi always lurking, it was never going to Espanyol’s night.
Added to their miseries, they were reduced to nine men for the final 15 minutes when Hernan Perez and Pape Diop were sent off within three minutes of each other.
Espanyol actually opening the scoring in the ninth minute when Marco Asensio picked Dani Alves’ pocket and broke in 2-on-1 from the halfway line with Caicedo partnering him down the middle. Asensio carried on the left forcing Marc-Andre ter Stegen to hold his line, then slipped the ball to the closing Caicedo. The Ecuadoran striker finished to the low-right corner to shock the Camp Nou crowd, but it proved to be the only real attacking threat the visitors could pose.
It took just four minutes for Messi to redress that error when he broke free in the box from an Iniesta pass. With only keeper Pau Lopez to beat and the lone defender stranded, the Argentine striker calmly popped home the equalizer.
Neymar had a penalty claim in the 24th minute when he chased down a good ball to the left side of the box and appeared to be brought down by Javi Lopez before he could manage a shot. Referee Juan Martinez Munuera wasn’t interested, however replays suggested that Neymar probably had a case.
Espanyol lost Caicedo to injury five minutes before the interval, the striker landing awkardly and appearing to twist a knee. Joan Jordan replaced him and it was Jordan’s foul on Arda that set up Messi’s second goal.
That one was a marvelous 30-yard free kick that hit the underside of the bar before nestling behind Pau Lopez and sent his side into the break with a deserved 2-1 lead. It was a piece of consummate skill from the little man, a drive which bent away from the keeper before grazing the woodwork on the way in.
Barcelona expanded the gap in the 49th minute when Messi drove hard to the left byline before cutting a grass-trimming cross for Pique to tap in at close range. Iniesta sent Messi on the way with a sweet pass, then the cross beat the lone defender with Pique in position to profit.
Espanyol went down to ten men in the 72nd minute when Perez picked up a second yellow card for obstructing Jordi Alba as he tried to work a 1-2 with Luis Suarez on the left, then Diop saw a straight red card three minutes later when he got involved with Suarez and said something Martinez Munuera did not appreciate. That meant Barcelona could attack the nine-man visiting team with 15 minutes of normal time remaining without fear of Espanyol being able to relieve the pressure.
To their credit, the visitors put their eight outfield players behind the ball, Pau Lopez was sharp to crosses and despite almost nonstop attacks Barcelona could not produce an avalanche of goals. Neymar was the only man to break through, producing a very finish outside-of-the-foot finish in the 87th minute after Messi found him in full flight.
Although Barca hold a commanding advantage ahead of the second leg, Pique emphasized the need for his team to retain focus when they visit Cornella on Jan. 13.
He said: "We have picked up a good result to get through but there is still the second leg to come. The [red cards] have influenced the game. It has not resolved the tie but we go there with a good result. In a cup tie anything can happen."
Information from Goal.com was used in this report.