BARCELONA (Reuters) - La Liga leaders Barcelona face what could be a fiery encounter against aggrieved neighbours Espanyol this weekend, while second-placed Atletico Madrid face a tricky game against Valencia.
Sunday’s Catalonia derby is the third meeting in a little more than two weeks between Barca and their less glamorous opponents after a bitter two-legged King’s Cup quarter-final that escalated the ill feeling between the two Barcelona clubs.
Espanyol beat their local rivals for the first time in nine years in first leg, but Barcelona advanced to the semi-finals by winning the return leg 2-0, with post-match comments from Barca duo Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique rubbing salt in the wounds.
Busquets criticised Espanyol for what he said were overzealous celebrations after the first leg, while Pique mocked Espanyol’s city credentials by calling them “Espanyol de Cornella”, referring to its home municipality. The barbs prompted an official complaint from Espanyol, accusing the players of inciting violence.
The first leg at Espanyol’s RCDE stadium had been played in a prickly atmosphere and Barca goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit in the face by an object thrown by home supporters.
La Liga officials have described this Sunday’s derby as a high-risk event, requiring increased policing, but Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez called on his side’s supporters to ensure there is a good-natured atmosphere and to resist any urges to abuse their opponents.
“The fans should go to the derby to support the team and not focus on any opposition player,” he told reporters.
“On Sunday we want Cornella to be a cauldron of noise in our favour without any insults or lack of respect. That’s the best way for them to support us, to show that they are exemplary supporters and then we can focus on our jobs.
“We behaved like gentlemen in the two cup games and will continue to do so.”
Barca hold an 11-point lead at the top of the standings, followed by an Atletico side that this Sunday host their main rivals as Spain’s third force behind Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Sunday’s opponents Valencia emerged as unlikely title contenders earlier in the season but are six points behind Atletico after losing five of their past eight games.
Atletico will be lifted by the return of Diego Costa after two weeks out through injury. They should also be better rested than Valencia, who visit the Spanish capital less than 72 hours after their King’s Cup semi-final first leg away to Barcelona.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by David Goodman