Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has warned his players to be ready for one of their toughest derby encounters in recent years when they visit Espanyol on Saturday.
Espanyol sit seventh in LaLiga, seven points behind leaders Barcelona who have taken 28 points from their opening 14 matches.
Barca enjoyed the upper hand over their city rivals for several years but the gap narrowed last season, with Espanyol winning one and drawing one of their four derby clashes, and Valverde believes they have pulled even closer this time around.
“It’s an evenly-matched derby, because there is only a small gap between the two teams,” Valverde said. “But this is a match which is played from the heart rather than the head.
“They are having a good run. They lost at home against Girona but otherwise they have had five wins in Cornella so it is a trial by fire for us.”
Several eyes will be on Barca’s Gerard Pique on Saturday.
The 31-year-old defender, a Barcelona native, has saved many of his best performances for the derby, and has scored six goals in 24 matches against Espanyol, but has also courted controversy and angered Espanyol with his comments before a match in January.
Valverde downplayed any ill-feeling before the match.
“His form this season is very good, we do not need to think about anything that has come before or anything unusual,” he said.
“We hope the atmosphere is at its best despite the rivalry. What is important is what happens on the pitch, and then, whatever happens, we have to shake hands.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Espanyol coach Rubi at his pre-match press conference.
“Our mindset will be on the sporting side of things and I hope it’s the same for him,” he said
“I am convinced that it will be this way from both sides.”
Valverde has been given a boost on the eve of the match, with Luis Suarez given the all-clear to play, having struggled with a knee injury this week.
Barca failed to win on Espanyol turf last season, losing 1-0 in the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie in late January and drawing 1-1 a little over a week later in the league.
Those results were encouraging, but Rubi has challenged his players to record a first victory over Barcelona since they moved to the Estadi Cornella-El Prat in 2009.
“We started to talk about the derby from Wednesday onwards, so have had three days to prepare,” he said.
“Our players want to be the first ones in history to beat Barcelona in the league at the RCDE Stadium.
“If we play like we did before the Getafe and Girona matches then it’ll be a very even game.”