La Liga: Rayo Vallecano vs FC Barcelona: Match Preview

FC Barcelona travel to Madrid tomorrow as they look to put the past two weeks behind them and register three points against Rayo Vallecano. With all the focus on Pep Guardiola over the past couple of days, it is easy to forget that Barcelona are in somewhat of a slump, without a win in their last three games. Tomorrow’s match will be important for the Blaugrana, as they look to not only return to winning form but also keep La Liga open for at least one more Jornada. Should Real Madrid emerge victorious against Sevilla in Sunday’s early kick-off, Barcelona would need to avoid defeat otherwise the title will be heading to Madrid. However, defeat for Real and a victory for Barcelona would bring the gap back down to four points with three matches (including a tricky trip to San Mames for Madrid) left to play. Maybe, just maybe...

As we head into the final five games of the Pep Guardiola era, the Barcelona squad looks a little thin, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. Gerard Pique is sidelined without an official injury, but is surely concussed after the collision with Victor Valdes, while Xavi has been ruled out for the next two weeks with a small tear in his calf. Add in the continued absences of Eric Abidal, David Villa and Andreu Fontas and Barcelona will have to call upon at least two B team players to fill the squad for tomorrow’s encounter.

In goal, Victor Valdes will start, and I just hope he brings his A game, especially as he is now playing for his place in the starting XI. The last three games have highlighted Valdes as a potential weak-link in the Blaugrana squad, although his position probably isn’t under significant threat. Nonetheless, a clean sheet or five in the final games of the season wouldn’t go amiss as he looks to impress manager-elect Tito Villanova and win back the full support of all the fans.

Defensively, I expect a return of the 4-3-3 and with that there could be a place for Martin Montoya to start at right-back. Dani Alves hasn’t been performing up to his usual high standards and with rumours of a move abroad intensifying by the day, perhaps Montoya will start as a sighter, to see whether the club could survive without Alves. Or on the other hand, as Alves was one of the few players not to attend Pep Guardiola’s press conference yesterday, maybe the Brazilian is feeling a little down after the events of the last day. Whatever the case, a start for Montoya seems likely in my eyes.

Carles Puyol gave the press conference today in place of Guardiola, and that’s as strong an indication as any that he is going to start tomorrow, with Javier Mascherano likely to start alongside our legendary captain. However, like Victor Valdes, Mascherano hasn’t been at his best in the last few games. Is it fatigue? Is it the fact he is being played out of position? Either way, I think that this match should serve as an opportunity for Masch to get some rest and for Marc Bartra to get a valuable start. At left-back, Adriano is basically the only option, unless Montoya is shifted out there, so logic suggests that the Brazilian will be returning to the starting line-up.

Sergio Busquets would be my choice in defensive midfield, although Seydou Keita is worth a shout, especially after the high praise he received from Pep yesterday. With Xavi out, I think Thiago will get the nod, especially after he nigh-on dominated the midfield in last week’s Clasico, while I would opt for Andres Iniesta over Cesc Fabregas, not least because Andres and Thiago have performed admirably together in their past few games.

Offensively, Lionel Messi will start despite his recent "dip" in form, while Pedro should be in line for a return after all but sitting out the last three matches. Aside from that, I have a hunch that Cristian Tello may start again considering the havoc he causes opposition defenders, but when have I ever correctly guessed a Guardiola line-up? Expect either Alexis or Cuenca and goals aplenty.

Predicted Line-Up: Valdes; Montoya, Puyol, Bartra, Adriano; Busi, Thiago, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Cuenca

Match Prediction: Rayo have been terrible as of late, expect the boys to put on a show for Pep and the fans: 3-0 Barca.

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