MADRID - Espanyol's battling 0-0 draw at home to La Liga leaders Barcelona will have made interesting watching for Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho on Saturday.
The Italians host the European Cup holders in a Champions League semi-final first leg on Tuesday, volcanic ash permitting, and were able to witness a rare sight as Barca found themselves harried, hurried and ultimately held by their super-motivated city rivals.
The visitors lost defender Daniel Alves to a red card after 62 minutes and Espanyol, who hit the woodwork in the first half, were perhaps unlucky not to come away with more from a game in which Barca were uncharacteristically defensive in outlook.
The champions moved on to 84 points from 33 games, but chasing Real Madrid closed to within one point when they beat third-placed Valencia 2-0 at the Bernabeu on Sunday.
"It's a point worth its weight in gold, because we played a long time with a man less," Barca president Joan Laporta told Spanish media.
"We are in the last stages of the league and there is more pressure because everyone has something to play for."
Espanyol's fans gave Barca a typically hostile reception, with a banner in the stands reading: "You aren't a rival, you are the enemy."
Roared on by their own, Espanyol gave Barca very little space, while a succession of fouls disrupted the rhythm of the game, players rapidly crowding round the referee to exert maximum pressure at every stoppage.
Barca did not have one decent shot on target and were lucky to go in at the break level after a quick Espanyol counter-attack ended with Pablo Osvaldo's effort being pushed on to a post by Victor Valdes.
Matters got worse for Pep Guardiola when Alves picked up his second yellow card but he still opted for attack throwing on Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to join Lionel Messi in the second half.
Espanyol have not conceded a goal at home in 2010 and looked secure at the back despite Barca continuing to dominate proceedings, and they were a constant worry for their neighbours on the counter.
Earlier, Frederic Kanoute and Luis Fabiano were on target to help Sevilla beat Sporting Gijon 3-0 at home, moving them up to fourth with 54 points.
Mali striker Kanoute scored following a free-kick in the eighth minute and Sporting's chances of getting back into the game were hindered when forward Mate Bilic picked up his second yellow card in the 32nd.
Brazil striker Luis Fabiano guided a majestic header past Juan Pablo in the 53rd, and Sporting picked up a second red card when defender Jose Angel walked in the 83rd.
Juan Cala wrapped up the points with a close-range header to keep up Sevilla's push for a return to Champions League action next season.
In the late game, Europa League semi-finalists Atletico Madrid, set to host Liverpool next week, suffered their third successive defeat, going down 2-1 at Villarreal.
Diego Godin and Giuseppe Rossi scored to put Villarreal sixth with 49 points. Sergio Aguero pulled one back for the visitors.comments