Leaders Barca held in derby stalemate by Espanyol

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Football Soccer - Espanyol v Barcelona - Spanish Liga BBVA -Cornella-El Prat stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, Spain - 2/1/16 Barcelona's Neymar (R) and Espanyol' Alvaro Gonzalez in action. REUTERS/Stringer

By Tim Hanlon

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez both hit the woodwork as Barcelona were held 0-0 by Espanyol on Saturday in a hard-fought derby that left Atletico Madrid poised to go top of La Liga in the later game against bottom side Levante.

Barca set a Spanish record of 180 goals in 2015 but their normally prolific attack drew a blank against local rivals who were strong in the challenge, especially in the first half, and succeeded in disrupting their play.

Messi hit the crossbar with a 30 yard free kick in the first half while Suarez, who has 26 goals this season, was surprisingly wasteful in front of an open goal in the second half with his shot hitting the post.

Barca have 39 points, a point more than Atletico, with both having played 17 games. Third-placed Real Madrid are on 36 points and play away to Valencia on Sunday.

Football Soccer - Espanyol v Barcelona - Spanish Liga BBVA -Cornella-El Prat stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, Spain - 2/1/16 Barcelona's Luis Suarez (L) and Espanyol' goalkeeper Pau Lopez in action. REUTERS/Stringer
Football Soccer – Espanyol v Barcelona – Spanish Liga BBVA -Cornella-El Prat stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, Spain – 2/1/16 Barcelona’s Luis Suarez (L) and Espanyol’ goalkeeper Pau Lopez in action. REUTERS/Stringer

“We always work hard in games. We have plenty of respect for our rival and we knew what we were going to encounter,” Barca keeper Claudio Bravo told reporters.

“The pitch wasn’t in the best condition but we don’t want to make excuses. We now need to rest and prepare for the next match.”

It was the first of three meetings in two weeks between the Catalan teams who are also paired up in the King’s Cup.

Espanyol went out to battle hard, conceding a number of free-kicks while also unsettling the Barca players at set-plays.

Alvaro Gonzalez and Javier Mascherano were both booked for pushing and shoving at a corner and Espanyol then went close to taking the lead at another corner when Alvaro flicked on at the near post and Gerard Pique cleared on the goal line.

Messi was inches away from giving Barcelona the lead with a free-kick that came back off the woodwork after 36 minutes.

Barca raised their tempo at the start of the second half and Espanyol were stretched at the back with Messi and Neymar going close with chances.

Suarez then went past keeper Pau Lopez and evaded a challenge

Football Soccer - Espanyol v Barcelona - Spanish Liga BBVA -Cornella-El Prat stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, Spain - 2/1/16 Barcelona's Lionel Messi (L) and Espanyol' Pape Diop in action. REUTERS/Stringer
Football Soccer – Espanyol v Barcelona – Spanish Liga BBVA -Cornella-El Prat stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, Spain – 2/1/16 Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (L) and Espanyol’ Pape Diop in action. REUTERS/Stringer

from Alvaro but, with the hard work done, struck the woodwork.

(Reporting by Tim Hanlon, editing by Alan Baldwin)

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