FC Barcelona will be hoping to bounce back from their disappointing midweek defeat in Paris on Saturday evening, as they travel to Madrid for the first time this season to take on Rayo Vallecano at the Campo de Futbol de Vallecas, more commonly known as just ‘Vallecas’. Despite the setback of Tuesday’s 3-2 UEFA Champions League loss against Ligue Un champions Paris Saint-Germain, the Blaugrana remain undefeated in domestic competition and continue to boast a formidable record under the guidance of Luis Enrique.
Sure, we conceded three goals in 90 minutes on Tuesday, but those are the only three goals we have conceded 720 minutes of competitive football this season, and yes, we lost but again, that’s the only blemish on an otherwise unbeaten record. Contrary to popular belief, the sky is not falling in Catalunya; not even close.
In Lionel Messi and Neymar, FC Barcelona can count on two of world football’s "in-form" players; only a select few players across Europe can even come close to the form that the pair has displayed in their opening fixtures. In Claudio Bravo, Barça are starting a goalkeeper that is close to setting a La Liga record for a clean sheet streak at the start of the season; I could go on, but you get the picture.
We’re supposed to be Culés – we’re supposed to support our team, not throw them under the bus on the basis of one game. If you really let 90 minutes shape your opinion on expectations for the rest of the season, why is the Paris Saint-Germain match the only valid choice? Why can’t I select the Granada CF performance, emphasise every single positive point in that display and use it to mount a case for why Barça can sustain a challenge for the treble under Luis Enrique?
I’m not burying my head in the sand and suggesting that there are no issues for Enrique to address – quite the opposite, but it’s better that he discovers these now – what does it matter that you have lost a UEFA Champions League group stage match? It certainly beats finding out in the semi-finals against a Bayern Munich, or in the quarter-finals against Atletico Madrid.
Vallecas can be a tough place to visit and tomorrow is likely to be no exception. Rayo’s defense is statistically the worst in the top half of the table (even worse than Real Madrid’s), yet through three matches at home, they are yet to trail at half-time. They’re going to be combative, the crowd is going to be hostile and the match is likely to be frustrating, but it’s important that we as fans keep the faith, and that the players keep their composure and confidence.
Let’s show that the midweek slip-up against Paris Saint-Germain was just that – a slip-up, and that it isn’t endemic of some fundamental flaw at the heart of Enrique’s new-look Barça.
Thomas Vermaelen remains sidelined as he continues his incredibly slow recovery from injury, although there is some good news as both Rafinha Alcântara and Douglas are back in training with the rest of the squad, even if they are yet to receive the green light from the medical team to return to action. Aside from that news, there’s not much to report compared to Tuesday’s match against Paris Saint-Germain, although it may be worth noting that Neymar hasn’t been training as usual all week.
Is it worth reading into that as a suggestion that Neymar might be rested? Doubtful, simply because the international break is approaching – and unless there’s a serious risk of Neymar doing damage, I’m not really in favour of preserving a player’s fitness only for their National Team to take advantage.
In goal, Claudio Bravo will start and while Culés are divided into two camps – one criticising Marc-André ter Stegen for his performance against PSG, and the other arguing that the others are being too harsh on the young German; I personally think that the PSG game displayed just why Bravo has been favoured in the majority of matches. He might be a little less talented, and he certainly isn’t as young, but he is experienced. He’s a leader who marshals the backline, and his presence does benefit us from a possession standpoint too.
It’s not that ter Stegen is a bad option, but at this moment, for this season and for this team, Claudio Bravo is currently better – that’s just the truth. Against Rayo’s high press, the Chilean will have to be on the top of his game, and from what we’ve seen so far, we can expect just that from him.
In the backline, I pray to the heavens that we finally see Gerard Piqué reintroduced to the centre of defense. I have no idea what the Catalan did to deserve such a demotion to ‘occasional role player’, but I can’t see the reason to continue with it, if Mascherano and Mathieu are the two replacements. Marc Bartra I could accept, but Piqué has Mascherano and Mathieu beaten hands down in just about every area bar speed.
Then again, I’ve always been a huge fan of Piqué and a vocal supporter of his, even through the "dark days" of the past few seasons – so it’s no surprise that I’m backing him again here. Alongside Piqué, I would love to see Marc Bartra – we need capable players in possession to cope with the Rayo gameplan and there are no two better options in the entire club.
At full-back, I would relish a chance to see Martin Montoya given a recall and while Jordi Alba didn’t exactly cover himself in glory against PSG, I would like to see the Catalan given a start on the left to see if he can bounce-back with a strong performance of his own.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote and with ball retention/composure in possession such a focus against Rayo in a hostile atmosphere, I wouldn’t mind seeing Xavi and Ivan Rakitić reunited in the two advanced positions. It worked a treat against Granada, although it would be a shock not to see Andrés Iniesta’s name on the teamsheet tomorrow evening. The Spaniard provided a fabulous assist for Lionel Messi’s goal in midweek, and his performance was one of the only positives from an otherwise dire display, so it’s not like we can be disappointed. Expect Xavi to continue sitting on the bench.
Moving onto the attack, it should really pick itself. Lionel Messi – duh. Neymar – also, duh. Pedro? No thanks. Munir or Sandro? Yeah, why not – it’s not like they are doing any worse than Pedro at the moment...on an unrelated note, when can Luis Suarez make his debut?...
Paco Jemez is a pretty incredible coach. Limited budget, working for a club that’s probably the fourth biggest, or third biggest at best in its location. He doesn’t have a Xavi, or an Iniesta, or a Lionel Messi and yet his Rayo Vallecano side remains one of the most technically adept in the division. Control of possession, pressing, high-tempo football; Rayo can be an absolute joy to watch – all this for a complete fraction of the cost of a Barcelona, or a Real Madrid.
It’s a modern miracle really, by football’s standards anyway and part of me will always wish them well; except from when they play Barcelona. Then, I just hope that Paco stays true to his roots and continues to play such an open game, purely because it plays right into Barcelona’s hands – and the easier the game is for us, the better really.
In terms of team news, Ze Castro has this week rejoined training with the rest of the squad, but tomorrow’s match will ultimately come too soon for him as he doesn’t make Paco’s final 18 man squad.
FC Barcelona 6-0 Rayo Vallecano – 15th February 2014 – La Liga
Two goals from Lionel Messi, one apiece from Neymar, Pedro, Alexis Sánchez and Adriano Correia secured the three points on an overly comfortable night for the Blaugrana.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Munir, Messi, Neymar
Rayo (4-2-3-1): Tono; Tito, Morcillo, Ba, Insua; Baena, Trashorras; Quini, Bueno, Kakuta; Leo
Rayo will make this a tough game, or they will fold under the pressure of facing a stronger Barça team. I haven’t figured out which one yet, so will venture on the optimistic side and predict a strong 4-0 victory.