Barcelona return to action tomorrow at the Camp Nou, where they will welcome Madrid-based outfit Rayo Vallecano in their first match back from the latest international break. Despite struggling with their form in recent weeks, the Blaugrana remain in contention at the top of the table, currently level on points with eternal rivals Real Madrid and just one adrift of the league leaders,Villarreal CF. With this match heralding the start of a fairly easy stretch of games, Barça will be keen to return to winning ways to both keep the pressure on at the top and perhaps as importantly, appease any anxious Culés watching around the world.
Certainly there will be a few that will fall into that category as we kick-off tomorrow; the absence of Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta has understandably had a huge impact on the side and results have suffered as a direct consequence. While Luis Suarez and Neymar are playing well, their performance levels dip without the kind of service that Messi and Iniesta provide – although that may all change for one night when Rayo roll on into town.
Under the guidance of their inspirational head coach, Paco Jemez, Rayo have consistently punched above their weight in La Liga, achieving relative success in spite of their small budget. All this whilst promoting and playing an expansive, possession-orientated, attacking style of football; Rayo are very much the “hipster” choice in La Liga and on their night, they can go toe-to-toe with just about anybody.
Well, with the exception of FC Barcelona.
37 goals scored, just two conceded; it’s safe to say that with a record like that, the Blaugrana relish their showdowns with Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou. Rayo start the match with the same philosophy as always, which often means more space is afforded to the Barça frontline and midfield, who predictably run riot.
That being said, without Lionel Messi, without Andrés Iniesta and without Xavi Hernández, maybe this is the year that things change? Rayo haven’t particularly impressed thus far this season, but I’d never count them out. With all the pressure onLuis Enrique and his side, Rayo might fancy their chances at causing an upset. It’s up to us to make sure that this doesn’t happen.
The good news is that Luis Suarez and Thomas Vermaelen could both feature tomorrow, and that’s after a week in which both have failed to regularly report to training with the rest of the side. The bad news is that no-one else is back, and we still haven’t been able to register Arda Turan to replace the injured Rafinha Alcântara. Ergo, the squad is still looking a little thin and options on the bench, particularly from an offensive standpoint, are underwhelming to say the least.
The international break may, or may not influence Luis Enrique’s selection tomorrow – and I’m going to do my best to second guess his thought process. The way I see it is simple; the European group didn’t have to travel far and played their final minutes on Tuesday at the latest. As such, it’s pretty much business as usual for those guys and we can expect to see them feature from the start tomorrow. The guys who travelled to South America on the other hand can probably expect a rest, at least for a portion of the match.
Between the sticks, Marc-André ter Stegen returned to training on Tuesday morning, but it would be a huge surprise not to see Claudio Bravo get the start – this is his competition after all. The Chilean will be eager to claim his first clean sheet as well, even if the majority of the responsibility for that will fall on the 10 outfield players starting in front of him.
In defense, Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra would be my selections at centre-half; both featured for Spain in the international break, and unlike Javier Mascherano let’s say, neither will have travelled half the world to represent their country. Thomas Vermaelen shouldn’t be rushed back into the starting line-up in my opinion, particularly given his track record and while Jeremy Mathieu is better at centre-half, I’ve decided that I don’t want to see him at all. Sorry Jeremy.
At full-back, I would prefer to see Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, but the midfield injury crisis is likely to put an end to that for the time being, meaning that Dani Alves should and probably will get the nod at right-back. Surely his poor form won’t last forever, right?
In midfield, I want to see Sergio Busquets actually at pivote. Not in an advanced role, but at pivote, where he belongs. Ivan Rakitić and Sergi Roberto can start ahead of him. Or heck, I’d rather see Munir start in midfield, similar to how he played for the B team at the tail-end of last season – against a side like Rayo, it might be the perfect time for Lucho to experiment on that front, even if he probably won’t.
And why’s that? Well, that’s because we need Munir to start in attack! With Messi injured, Arda banned and Sandro operating better on the left, we’re stuck with a front three of Munir, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Not that this is inherently bad, just that it’s not clicking all that well at the moment.
Tactical swerve: Sergi Roberto at right-back, Munir in midfield and Dani Alves in attack.
Paco Jemez has likened tomorrow’s trip to the Camp Nou to a casino, mentioning that he’s going because he believes he has a chance to win the figurative jackpot. However, he knows that you can’t win the jackpot by keeping all your cards close to your chest and playing it safe. He’s making a big gamble, but as always, he’s going to be all in, going for broke against the reigning European champions.
The pressure high up the field will likely fluster and irritate the Blaugrana, at least in the early exchanges. Rayo will have sights at goal, they will have chances and they could cause an upset – but if that first goal goes against them, the floodgates could easily open and we could be in for another big win. Whatever the case, it’s sure gonna be a lot of fun to watch.
FC Barcelona 6-1 Rayo Vallecano – 8th March 2015 – La Liga
A hat-trick from Lionel Messi, complemented by a brace from Luis Suarez and a goal from Gerard Piqué handed Barça a big win against a plucky Rayo outfit who, as usual, came to the Camp Nou to go toe-to-toe with the Catalan heavyweights.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Roberto; Munir, Suarez, Neymar
Rayo (4-3-3): Tono; Tito, Ze Castro, Llorente, Nacho; Baena, Trashorras; Pablo Hernández, Jozabed, Bebe; Javi Guerra
We’re gonna do well in spite of ourselves in this one. Expect an open affair, which plays into the hands (or feet) of Neymar. 4-1 Barça.