After an emphatic, sublime performance to advance into the Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 4-0 win against AC Milan, Barcelona return to domestic football. Rayo Vallecano visit Barca's ground with an eye to leapfrogging Valencia and Betis in the standings and into an Europa league slot.
Rayo, from the working-class neighborhood of Vallecas, in Madrid, have traditionally been in the bottom of Primera or the top of Segunda, and as recently as 2007 were even in the third tier of Spanish football.
The Franjirrojos returned to the top flight last season, where they finished a relatively comfortable 15th, having never spent any time in the drop zone. However, this calmness only comes in hindsight, as Villarreal, who were relegated, finished only two points behind Rayo.
Their successful mission was in part carried by Michu, who with 15 goals was ninth in the La Liga scoring charts. Michu was sold to Swansea City of the Premier League in the offseason. The former Real Oviedo product is fourth in the Premiership in goals and has already equaled his tally with 15 goals.
Despite the loss of their best player, Rayo are in fact stronger than last year. In eighth place, they're only a point behind Valencia and qualification to the Europa league. By contrast, they are 17 points off the drop zone. Their best ever finish in Primera, by the way, is ninth.
Rayo perhaps have not been consistent, though that seems a harsh criticism given no one expected them to be that good ever, let alone some of the time. Rayo is coming off an impressive 2-0 win over Espanyol, but even more praise-worthy is their 2-1 conquest of their neighbors, Atletico Madrid (then second place), a few weeks back.
Rayo are very good team in Vallecas, having won nine league matches this season so far. That's only two less than Real Madrid. Outside, they haven't quite been as good, but still have won a respectable thirteen points away from home.
Their key weakness has been defending in away games. having let in 27, fourth worst in La Liga.
In the absence of Michu, Piti has emerged as a key figure. Having scored only three goals in the previous season, Piti already has 11 this term, which puts him ninth in the Pichichi (top-scorer) race.
Piti is a left winger who enjoys cutting inside to shoot. The coaching staff has given him license to try from distance, and he's certainly shown he's capable of scoring.
Leo Baptistao has also been a key contributor, scoring seven goals and providing six assists for the Vallecanos. Despite being the team's main central forward, the Brazilian has been getting the most praise for his keen passing, as he leads the team in assists.
However, the team's premier passing talent is Roberto Trashorras. The 32-year-old played for Barcelona B, and even made one league appearance for Barca, before joining Real Madrid B. Since, he's made a few trips around Spain. He's been playing most of his career in Segunda, but after coming into the team in 2011, he's developed as Rayo's passing metronome,
Trashorras leads the team in passes per game, key passes per game, passing accuracy, long balls per game, and crosses per game. In addition, he is third in assists and through balls per game.
The main criticism of him is his defensive contribution is weak, but, when paired in central midfield with a good tackler, he can be properly shielded.
Rayo's manager is Paco Jemez, a former Spanish international in his first foray in Primera as a coach. Jemez uses a fashionable 4-2-3-1.
"We will be competing for the ball," Jemez said in his press conference. "It's what we like to do and it's what we always do and this won't be an exception."
Will Rayo really try to compete for possession in the midfield? Or will Jemez rely on his defensive instincts, being a former center-back, and attempt to "park the bus"?
Rayo are known for being brave. In the fixture last year, Rayo played for the first 40 minutes at the Camp Nou with great intensity. Alexis Sanchez scored in the 29th, but it was really tense.
Then, in the span of only nine minutes, Alexis, David Villa, and Lionel Messi all scored to make it 4-0. This bravery has been so far met with more adverse results - the last two matches against Barca were 0-7 and 0-5. in light of this, will Jemez stick to the style, as he said in the press conference?
"These matches are special because you have to be at your very best and you learn a lot as well," Jemez finalized.
Ruben Martinez should start in goal, though David Cobeño has seven starts. At left-back, Jose Casado is the regular starter and he's been pretty good this season so far, but he's suspended. Nacho Martinez, a promising youngster who has been impressive in his five starts so far, should replace him.
In the heart of defense Alejandro Galvez.has gathered a bit of form and likely will start. The other spot could go to Jordi Amat, on loan from Espanyol, but it could also go to Jordi Figueras, on loan from Club Brugge.
Figueras had an amazing game against Espanyol, providing an assist and making a goal-saving block, and the coaching staff may opt for his form. Mikel Labaka is another option, meanwhile Rodri is out for the season with a long-term injury.
Tito has started all league games so far but one, and this shouldn't be an exception for the Portuguese right-back. Anaitz Arbilla is an option at either fullback spot, though he's not as likely to be used.
In midfield, Trashorras is a lock to start. The ball-winner who accompanies him is normally Javi Fuego, who has only missed one game so far, however, he is suspended as well.
Jemez could move Galvez up to defensive midfield and start with two Jordis in defense. Another (perhaps more positive) option is to give Adrian Gonzalez his seventh start.
The four upfront will definitely include Piti and Chori Dominguez, but with Leo suspended, the other two places are harder to predict.
Assuming Piti on the left and Dominguez behind the striker, the right-wing position is probably for Lass Bangoura, though Jose Carlos Fernandez is an option there as well.
Montenegran Andrija Delibasic is usually Leo's sub, and he's offered a decent return of four goals. However, the coaching staff is not sold on Delibasic, so we could well see Lass or Jose Carlos upfront with the other on the wing.
Rayo have been brave against Barcelona in the past. Since their return to Primera, Rayo have lost their three matches against Barca by a combined score of 16-0. The key question is, will Rayo attack again, with the idea that losing 3-0 and 7-0 is all the same? Or will they try to defend for a low-scoring draw?
In either case, Barca are coming off an emotionally exhausting game. They will certainly be letting up the gas a bit. Still, Rayo's poor home form could mean Barcelona ought to have enough to see the match out.
Possible XI (4-2-3-1): Ruben; Nacho, Amat, Galvez, Tito; Adrian, Trashorras; Piti, Dominguez, Lass; Jose Carlos.