BARCELONA, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Barcelona will expect a tougher test from Espanyol than in recent years as they host their local rivals on Sunday looking to eat into Real Madrid’s six-point lead at the top of La Liga.
With Zinedine Zidane’s side absent from La Liga action this week, on Club World Cup duty, the champions have the opportunity to make up ground on their rivals and will be emboldened by recent dominant wins over Borussia Moenchengladbach and Osasuna.
The visit of an Espanyol side that are unbeaten in nine league games, however, should provide a sterner test than their last two outings.
Barca’s less glamorous neighbours have developed a tougher edge under the guidance of former Atletico Madrid and Watford coach Quique Sanchez Flores, who has ironed out the team’s defensive problems and helped them win four of their last six games.
Barca have not lost to Espanyol since 2009 and have outscored them by 19 to one in their last five league meetings at the Nou Camp, but midfielder David Lopez believes his side are ready to make their mark on the derby again.
“It’s been a long time since we last beat them but now is a good time because the team has realised we’re capable of great things,” Lopez said. “We’re on form and feeling confident and we need to take advantage of that.”
Espanyol had two players sent off in their penultimate visit to the Nou Camp which sparked an angry confrontation in the tunnel with Barca players, and Lopez does not want a repeat of those scenes on Sunday.
“It’s a special game but we can’t be overly aggressive. We’ll try to win as we have won games recently. If we are well-positioned and help each other out we won’t need to make fouls and receive cards that end up making you lose games,” he added.
Injured defender Jeremy Mathieu is the only absentee for Barca, who beat Qatari side Al Ahli 5-3 in a friendly in the Gulf state on Tuesday. Pablo Piatti, Espanyol’s second-top scorer with five goals, is a doubt with a hamstring injury.
Sevilla, one point behind Barcelona, in third place, take on Malaga at home while sixth-placed Atletico Madrid, who have learned that influential goalkeeper Jan Oblak will be out for up to four months with a shoulder injury, look to return to the top four when they host Las Palmas.
Reporting by Richard Martin,; Editing by Neville Dalton