FC Barcelona produced arguably their best performance of the season on Tuesday night when they defeated AC Milan 4-0 at the Camp Nou and stand-in coach Jordi Roura will be looking for a similar result tomorrow when the Blaugrana host Rayo Vallecano in La Liga action. The visitors have punched above their weight all season, although recent results have seen Rayo (understandably) fall out of the race for a top-four finish. Can Paco Jemez’ side become just the second La Liga side to escape the Camp Nou with a share of the spoils, or will Barcelona be able to claim their third successive win heading into the international break?
Mixed news on the injury-front this week as Xavi promptly recovered from his thigh injury only to reinjure himself in the win over AC Milan, while Carles Puyol underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. As a result, neither Xavi nor Puyol will feature in tomorrow’s match, although somewhat bizarrely, Xavi has been called-up for international duty with Spain. Granted, Spain have a potentially tricky World Cup qualifier against France to worry about, but why can’t Vicente Del Bosque call-up another absurdly talented midfielder in his place? Anyway enough about Xavi; let’s move onto tomorrow’s starting line-up.
Given that Barcelona’s appeal against Victor Valdés’ four-game suspension was rejected, Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal with B team keeper Oier Olazabal (who was suspended for last weekend’s win over Deportivo La Coruna) expected to take Pinto’s usual spot on the Barça bench. The 37 year-old veteran recently signed an extension to his current deal and has repaid Barcelona’s faith with a number of impressive performances, rolling back the clock to notch an impressive five clean sheets in all competitions. It’s been roughly a year since Barça last registered three consecutive shut-outs, but Pinto is in a position to repeat that feat – and he may fancy his chances knowing that Rayo are without one of their star strikers, Leo Baptistao.
That being said, a clean sheet isn’t just the work of the goalkeeper; the defense also play their part in any shut-out and it’s time we praised our backline for keeping both Deportivo and Milan at bay in the past week. Jordi Alba in particular was exceptional against Milan, denying Robinho with a crucial block in the dying stages of the match before adding a goal of his own in injury-time. Alba should start tomorrow and he was in good form the last time the two sides met – providing an assist for Xavi’s 79th minute goal in a Manita victory for the Blaugrana. Alba is likely to be joined in defense by both Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano, who formed a formidable partnership in the Milan match.
Piqué might be one yellow card away from a suspension, but is likely to be rested for Barça’s next league match anyway – so don’t be surprised if Geri does pick up a caution tomorrow. Marc Bartra could and probably should start tomorrow, although with the international break looming there really is no need to rest players and, with a UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint Germain on the horizon, Bartra is likely to receive some playing time in the next few weeks regardless of whether he starts tomorrow or not. Similarly, I’m all for giving Martin Montoya a chance to shine at right-back, but again, there is no need to leave Dani Alves out of the starting line-up. The Brazilian has provided an assist in each of his last three La Liga appearances – and started ten of the last eleven, so it’s unlikely we will see Alves on the bench tomorrow evening.
Moving onto the midfield, Sergio Busquets should start at pivote after another excellent performance against AC Milan with Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta likely to join the newly-crowned Catalan Player of the Year in the middle of the park. Fàbregas has been criticised recently for a string of "poor" performances for the Blaugrana, though his record still makes for pleasant reading: in 50 La Liga appearances, Cesc has scored 15 and created a further 22 goals for the team. Perhaps that’s why he’s being criticised; after setting such high standards in the first-half of the season it’s only natural that we notice when his production drops off. With just two goals and two assists in 2013, Fàbregas isn’t at his best but many said the same about the team prior to the Milan game – and we all know how that turned out.
Lionel Messi will start in attack after notching his sixteenth brace of the season against AC Milan and he heads into tomorrow’s match knowing that another brace would see him move ahead of former Real Madrid striker Pahiño and into 7th place on the all-time list of La Liga top-scorers. Messi is also two away from reaching 350 career goals (at least if we include his goals for both Barcelona B and C in the Segunda B and Tercera respectively), not that I put that in as a response to Cristiano Ronaldo scoring his 350th career goal earlier tonight...
Really, the only question is who starts alongside Lionel Messi, and after Tuesday’s win, Jordi Roura has a dilemma. Does he start David Villa after his goal effectively clinched la remuntada? Does he start Pedro knowing that the Spaniard provided an assist in Barça’s 5-0 win over Rayo back in October? Or will he start Alexis Sánchez after the Chilean’s impressive performance against Deportivo? It’s a tough call – and that’s without considering Cristian Tello – but I think we can all agree it’s a good problem to have.
Paco Jemez has decided to include 17 year-old Isaac Gomez in the squad for tomorrow’s trip to the Camp Nou, as Rayo travel to the Catalan capital without a whole host of first-team regulars. Leo Baptistao misses out through suspension – as does midfielder Javi Fuego and left-back Jose Manuel Casado. However, Jordi Amat returns after serving a one-match ban of his own against Espanyol.
Rayo Vallecano 0-5 FC Barcelona – 27th October 2012 – La Liga
A brace from Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona to victory at Vallecas, who – courtesy of goals from David Villa, Xavi and Cesc Fàbregas – registered their first Manita under Tito Vilanova.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Pedro
Rayo (4-2-3-1): Ruben; Tito, Galvez, Amat, Nacho; Adrian, Trashorras; Lass, Dominguez, Piti; Jose Carlos
Barcelona ran away with it the last time they faced Rayo, and after Tuesday’s win over AC Milan, many expect them to do the same tomorrow. While I think Barça will win, I’m not expecting to see another Manita – 3-0 Barcelona