The international break is finally over. Today against Rayo Vallecano, Barcelona have a chance to take the first step toward getting things back in order. The loss against Sevilla last time out meant we entered the international break on a sour note. Rayo won't be pushovers but this is certainly a match that should not end with our opponents leaving Camp Nou with anything in their bag.
Neymar - Stepping up
Neymar has had a good break from competitive action and should be raring to have a go at Rayo. After getting a taste of what it's like to be Barça's main man in the defeat to Sevilla, the Brazilian will be licking his lips at the prospect of taking on Messi's mantle and running with it. Compared to the Neymar we had when Messi suffered injuries in the build-up to the 2014 World Cup, this is a much improved and more mature version - a Neymar who is ready to step up and thrive under that pressure of stepping out of Messi's shadow whenever the Argentine is unavailable.
Whilst Lucho has made the team more direct than the style of football played under Pep and Tito, ceding possession to Rayo would be a dangerous thing to do. They have proven to be an enterprising and hardworking team that respects but does not fear opponents. One of Paco Jemez's key men is Masia product Roberto Trashorras, who has deservedly earned a good reputation as a midfield operator in La Liga. Alongside Raúl Baena, formerly of Espanyol, they form a vital cog in Jemez's side.
With Andrés Iniesta out injured, Rakitić will take centre stage in midfield and, for the time being, has the responsibility of being the principal chance creator for the forwards. Sergi Roberto has had a great start to the season and has finally found a role in the team. If he starts in central midfield. Roberto needs to provide the energy, defensive astuteness and solidity that will give the likes of Ivan Rakitić, Neymar and Luis Suárez the chance to play freely whilst keeping the back door shut. Winning the midfield battle would be the ideal first step to a home win.
Rayo's high pressing and key threats
Paco Jemez will have been watching our defeat to Celta with a smile on his face. Like the Galician side, Rayo press their opponents high up the pitch. The Rayo players will have been drilled tactically in training over the international break and Jemez, as meticulous as he is, will leave no stone unturned in preparing for today's game. Busquets will be key(as usual!) in maintaining our fluidity in possession between defence and midfield.
Rayo also possess the willingness, and ability, to keep possession and carefully construct attacks. The likes of Léo Baptistão and Joaquín Larrivey have previously been key threats, but now Bebé and Manucho pose a different threat - more pace, more directness and more physicality. Lass Bangoura provides pace and guile from out wide. Patrick Ebert, impressive at Real Valladolid, has the technical ability and vision to create chances for his team-mates.
Looking past the injuries, the players at Luis Enrique's disposal for today's game have more than enough quality to defeat Rayo