Barcelona extended their run to 35 games without a defeat with an emphatic 5-1 win against Rayo Vallecano, breaking Real Madrid’s 27-year-old Spanish record of 34 games unbeaten. Led by the unstoppable Lionel Messi, who helped Barcelona’s cause with a hat-trick, and with goals from Ivan Rakitić and Arda Turan, Barcelona’s triumph was never really in question. The lone goal scorer for the hosts was Manucho.
|Shots on Target||4
Luis Enrique didn't want to leave anything to chance, sending a very strong lineup to the Vallecas ground. Both the midfield and attacking corps featured the usual suspects but there were some changes in the defense. There the usual starting center-back duo of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano were joined by Jeremy Mathieu on the left and Sergi Roberto on the right, with Jordi Alba relegated to the bench and Dani Alves staying in Barcelona due to the accumulation of yellow cards.
As expected from a Rayo Vallecano - Barcelona game, both teams wanted to play with the ball, with the hosts playing a very fast brand of football from the get-go. And their style caused some problems to the Barcelona back-line just four minutes it with Adri Embarba threatening Claudio Bravo, but the Chilean made the save.
Rayo might have been the team to threaten first, but it were Barcelona who were the more dominant side on the pitch. Lovely passing combinations and some quick bursts from the Barcelona players tested Rayo's defense, which seemed to give up a goal in the 9th minute. But Rikitić's pass to Messi, who brilliantly chipped the goalkeeper, was correctly adjudged to be offside.
The hosts were especially dangerous from the counter attack where their speed caused problems to the Barcelona defense. Embarba especially was able to showcase his running skills and close ball control, but his shooting skills let him down again in the 15th minute as his weak shot was easily held by Bravo.
Barcelona slowly but surely started getting closer and closer to Juan Carlos' goal and in the 21st minute only a good low save by the Rayo keeper prevented celebrations as Messi did well to control Neymar's difficult pass and get a strong shot on goal. The ensuing corner kick was cleared but the ball found its way to Roberto on the right side. The Spaniard wasted no time in sending a cross in but it appeared it was headed right into the hands of the goalkeeper. Juan Carlos, however, dropped the ball which fell right to Rakitić who controlled it and sent it into the empty net.
The Catalans were always on the prowl to make Rayo pay for their mistakes in possession, which were aplenty throughout the half. While many of Rayo's turnovers weren't taken advantage of, mainly due to some poor decision making from Neymar and Luis Suarez, Barça managed to quickly double their lead as barely a minute after the opening goal Messi scored. Mascherano quickly turned the direction of play after a turnover in midfield and sent Messi and Neymar to the races. The duo played a lovely one-two, though Neymar might have been offside at the time of the pass, and Messi made no mistake in space in front of the goal.
The game continued with both sides taking numerous risks on the ball deep in their ends, though neither of them were punished for them. The closest anybody came to changing the score from one of such plays was in the 39th minute when a misunderstanding between the Rayo defense and Juan Carlos gifted Suarez with a golden opportunity. Alone, 20-yards from goal with an empty net to shoot at, all Suarez could muster was a tame shot right into the hands of the returning goalkeeper.
Rayo would threaten quickly thereafter as Embarba sent a great cross in from the left but Tito's header missed the target. The very next minute referee Iñaki Vicandi Garrido showed a direct red card to Real Madrid loanee Diego Llorente for a lunging studs-first challenge on Rakitić. While there was no intent to harm the player, which Llorente quickly attested to, the referee was left with little choice as the danger factor from such a play is more often than not rewarded with a red card. Luckily Rakitić was able to continue and the referee soon thereafter whistled for halftime.
Neither manager made any changes during the break, which wasn't at all surprising in Barcelona's case, but it was expected that Paco Jemez would look to shore up his defensive line which was leaky even when it was at full-strength. Barcelona came close to exposing that defense less than two minutes in when Messi and Neymar combined on the left, but Neymar couldn't find the target.
Despite being a man down Rayo continued to play attacking football which allowed Barcelona even more space, especially on the counter. In the 53rd minute Barcelona launched one such counter after a cleared Rayo corner kick. The closing stages of said attack featured a low cross by Roberto from the right side which was blocked but the ball fell to Suarez who quickly fired a shot that thundered off the post. The rebound, however, fell to the waiting Messi who was able to complete the brace.
Down a man and down by three goals, Rayo would still not go quietly into the night, clawing back a goal four minutes later. Embarba was again the main figure, this time sending a cross from the right side. On the far post Bebe easily rose over Roberto to send a useful ball beck in front out of the reach of Bravo to Manucho who eluded Pique's coverage. The Angolan footballer had no trouble sending the ball into the empty net.
Barcelona would threaten again in the 65th, which would be the start of a thrilling and comical sequence at the same time. Suarez was the first to take the shot, and while the shot wasn't the best, Juan Carlos had trouble collecting the ball and Neymar just barely couldn't reach the ball for the easy finish. As the play continued, Rakitić won a free kick on the very edge of the area. With everybody expecting Messi to complete the hat-trick from the set-piece, Neymar took the shot only to be denied by the crossbar. The ball rebounded to the feet of Sergio Busquets five yards from goal and the midfielder was brought down from behind by Manuel Iturra for a penalty kick and, unnecessarily, another red card. Suarez took responsibility for the kick and powered the ball on target, but right at Juan Carlos as well, leading to yet another missed spot-kick. The sequence would continue with Messi sending a stunning diagonal ball from the right just out of reach of the goalkeeper and right on the foot of Neymar who cut the ball back for an easy Suarez goal. But the play was correctly whistled dead for a Neymar offside.
But Barcelona would be able to celebrate a goal shortly after as Busquets played Messi behind the defense. Even though he was presented with a chance of a square pass to the wide open Neymar, considering the way the game had unfolded up until that point, Messi opted for the "safe bet" and finished the play off himself to secure his second career hat-trick against Rayo Vallecano. In quick succession Lucho then made two substitutions, pulling Roberto and Busquets to the bench and replacing them with Aleix Vidal and Thomas Vermaelen.
The Messi hat-trick goal would not be the final goal of the game though, as Arda, who came on the pitch in the middle of the aforementioned hectic sequence in place of Rakitić, would score his first goal in Blaugrana colors. Mathieu sent a perfect cross from the left side and Arda headed the ball into the back of the net. With the win Barcelona restored their eight point lead over Atletico Madrid and next up for the Catalans is a Sunday trip to the Basque country where they will face Eibar.
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