The final international break of 2023 is behind us and Barcelona begin a very important stretch of games to end the year that will in many ways decide their fate in both La Liga and the Champions League.
The first test is away to Rayo Vallecano, a team Xavi Hernández is yet to beat since taking over as manager two years ago. The boss was able to relieve some of the pressure he was under after the comeback win against Alavés two weeks ago, but the standard of performances has dropped significantly in recent times and the tough games ahead will demand much better production from the coach and the players.
A win against Rayo is crucial to stay in touch with the top of the table before two gigantic clashes against Atlético Madrid and Girona, but it won’t be easy against a Rayo side that remains highly competitive despite losing their manager and some key pieces last summer. Here’s how we think Xavi will line up his troops for Saturday’s battle.
As of this writing, the biggest news regarding the starting XI for this weekend is the status of goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, who couldn’t play for Germany in the international window and returned to Catalonia due to a back injury. It initially appeared as though the issue wasn’t serious, but Ter Stegen has done little to no training this week and there’s a real chance he’ll miss his first game of the season.
If that does happen, then Iñaki Peña will get a rare chance to start in a meaningful game, and the back four in front of him will need to play very well to provide the young keeper some security and confidence. João Cancelo and Alejandro Balde are expected to start in the two full-back spots, and Ronald Araujo could get the day off after returning late from Uruguay duty.
Jules Kounde and Iñigo Martínez are the favorites to start at center-back, though Xavi could go with a back three as he’s done in recent weeks and insert Andreas Christensen in the middle. That appears unlikely for this one, however, so we’re going with a back four and Christensen on the bench alongside Araujo as substitutes.
It’s still difficult to accept the brutal reality of Gavi’s season-ending injury and the unnecessary manner in which it occurred, but Barça have no choice but to move on. And having Frenkie de Jong back is a giant boost after the Dutchman missed two months with an ankle injury and the team fell off a cliff without him.
Pedri wasn’t called up by Spain to get two extra weeks of rest and training as he looks to get back to top shape, and he must find a way to finally stay healthy for the rest of the year without Gavi. He’ll start alongside Frenkie on Saturday, and the only doubt is whether or not Ilkay Gündogan gets a rest ahead of Tuesday’s monster Champions League clash with Porto.
The German has played a lot of football already this season and could use at least 45 minutes on the bench, and De Jong’s return allows Xavi to renew Frenkie’s partnership with Oriol Romeu, which was quite productive in the first month of the season. Romeu has struggled since then, however, and the need of three points in this one does make it more likely that Gündogan starts again and perhaps gets replaced in the second half if Barça get a big enough lead.
Barça’s attack finally showed signs of life in the second half against Alavés, and Robert Lewandowski had a game-winning star cameo that showed the Pole still has what it takes to decide matches if he has enough quality service from the people around him.
Unfortunately every other attacker outside of Lewy is out of form, with João Félix and Lamine Yamal (mostly due to the natural ups and downs of a kid his age) particularly unproductive as of late. Ferran Torres scored for Spain and has had a strong overall season both as a starter and a substitute, and he deserves a chance to start this one in place of Félix on the left.
Raphinha has been in and out of the lineup since returning from injury but Yamal’s struggles make it likely the Brazilian gets an extended run in the next few games, so expect him to start this one.
Possible XI: Peña; Cancelo, Kounde, Iñigo, Balde; Pedri, De Jong, Gündogan; Raphinha, Lewandowski, Ferran (4-3-3)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Rayo? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!