Barcelona stumbled in the race for the Spanish title with a 1-1 draw against rivals Espanyol in a moody Catalan derby on Saturday, leveling Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.

Xavi’s team threw away the two-point advantage they had obtained before the World Cup break, with a penalty from Joselu that went back to Barcelona after Marcos Alonso’s first goal.

Both teams ended up with 10 men, as Jordi Alba and Vinicius Souza were sent off, and referee Mateu Lahoz allowed the game to get out of hand at the Camp Nou.

The teams were at odds before a ball was kicked because Barcelona started Robert Lewandowski, who had been banned before a late court ruling allowed him to play.

The striker, who would miss three league games, was only able to play thanks to a controversial decision announced on Friday suspending his ban.

That made Espanyol very angry, whose president and officials boycotted the game, while Barca coach Xavi admitted his team had prepared all week hoping to be without the division’s top scorer.

The Spanish Football Federation said in a statement on Saturday that it could not overturn the court’s decision.

Lewandowski was not at his best, but Barcelona took the lead after just seven minutes with Alonso taking advantage of poor Espanyol defending to head in.

The former Chelsea defender, deployed as a centre-back, should have doubled his tally but sent Alba’s cross wide at point-blank range.

Espanyol’s only chance in the first half came when Nico Melamed shot off Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s far post.

The 16th-placed visitors struggled to create much more but won a penalty after Alonso tangled with Joselu in the box, and the striker dispatched it down the middle.

Lahoz, racking up bookings, sent off Alba for two in quick succession, before sending off both Souza for a foul and Leandro Cabrera for a clash with Lewandowski seconds later.

However, he overturned this latest sending-off after re-viewing the incident with VAR, and Barcelona were unable to find a winner in the added nine minutes.

The Barça coach, Xavi, also received a warning from Lahoz for complaining from the bench at the last minute, and the referee left the stadium amid boos and whistles from the local fans.

Barcelona and Real Madrid, who beat Real Valladolid on Friday, have 38 points from 15 games, leaving the head-to-head title race for the new year.

AFP