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Messi battles for the ball with Espanyol's Hernán Pérez. / MIGUEL RUIZ -FCB

FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol opened the New Year by battling to a scoreless draw in La Liga action on Saturday afternoon at Estadi Cornellà-El Prat.

The Catalans ran away with the battle for possession, but Espanyol’s aggressive approach paid dividends and FC Barcelona’s most dangerous chances fell innocuously by the wayside as a combination of bad bounces and a pair of shots off the woodwork stood between the world champions and a year-opening victory.

On FCB’s first dangerous attack of the game, after nine minutes of play, full-back Jordi Alba was wide open in front of the goal when he received a cross from striker Luis Suárez, but appeared to lose sight of the ball in a patch of bright sunlight and was unable to finish.

In the 36th, Lionel Messi’s 23-metre free kick had Espanyol keeper Pau López easily beaten, but the ball curled up and over the wall and clanged off the upper-right corner of the woodwork.

Barça came up against the woodwork again in the 55th when Suárez hit the post with a close-range shot after collecting a rebound that left López out of position.

Another good scoring chance came the Catalans’ way in the 76th, but Neymar’s valiant bicycle kick attempt from just beyond the penalty spot was short-hopped by López.

Messi sent an 89th minute free kick high and wide.

Espanyol came out of the gates at full throttle and — despite ceding possession to FC Barcelona at a 75% clip in the first half — pressed their cross-town rivals all over the field and successfully kept them from settling in.

The complexion of the game was very different after the break, though, as Espanyol, unable to keep up after a frenetic first half, retreated en masse into their defensive end.

Nevertheless, their pugnacious approach, typical in this heated, intra-city derby — the oldest such rivalry in Spanish football — was effective enough to contain Barça’s feared attack for the better part of the afternoon.

Espanyol had their best chance of the day denied in the 25th, when Barça defender Gerard Piqué slid in to make a brilliant last-ditch clearance on the goal line after FC Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo erred while parrying a corner kick that had surprised him at the near post.

Despite the draw, Espanyol remain winless at home versus Barça since 2007. The Periquitos have now gone 13 straight games without beating Barça.

Espanyol do remain unbeaten at home in La Liga since 3 October, however, while FCB are undefeated since then across all competitions.

The two teams will have just three days of rest before they face each other again on Wednesday night at 8.30pm CET in the first leg of the Copa del Rey last 16 at Camp Nou.

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