Six months ago at the end of April it was revealed that Pep Guardiola would not continue as Barça’s first team coach and that Tito Vilanova would take over. Two days after the announcement the players paid homage to Guardiola with an exquisite display to win 0-7 at Rayo Vallecano.
Barça return to Vallecas tomorrow with Vilanova firmly in charge. His record so far is very good as Barça sit top of La Liga after 8 weeks while the late victory over Celtic on Tuesday night made it three out of three in the Champions League. However, there have been quite a few doubts about the defence which has conceded eight goals in the last three league games.
We are still without Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol and for the game tomorrow we will be missing Javier Mascherano too, after the appeal against his second yellow card was rejected. The good news is that Dani Alves has received medical clearance and he will travel with the 18-man squad named for the trip. If Alves starts we will at least have our first choice full backs in place though for central defence Tito will have to choose from Bartrá, Song, Adriano and Busquets. It seems very probably that Bartrá will start again after his confident performance against Celtic but who will partner him is anybody’s guess. Personally, I would go with Adriano again, though it’s not the greatest solution, while I have the feeling that Tito will give Song another chance.
Busquets seems more likely to return in midfield where Vilanova will again have to choose between Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. This afternoon (Friday) Xavi is flying to Oviedo where he will pick up the Prince of Asturias Award which he won together with Iker Casillas. Xavi will return to Barcelona tonight to travel tomorrow to Madrid with the rest of the team, but it seems possible that Vilanova will use the Oviedo trip as an excuse to start Xavi on the bench. Up front it is another straight choice between Pedro, Tello, Villa and Alexis to accompany Leo Messi.
Messi has already scored 11 goals in the 8 league games this season and there is already an interesting three-way contest forming for the pichichi with Radamel Falcao and Cristiano Ronaldo who have both bagged nine. It might be pointed out here that while Falcao and Ronaldo are undoubtedly two of the best finishers in the game, if you take away penalties scored then Messi has netted as many (ten) as the pair of them put together.
I should say here that it baffles me that in Madrid they are still arguing over whether Ronaldo, Casillas or even Sergio Ramos (of all the over-rated players) should win the Ballon d’Or award this season. Let me state quite clearly: Messi is head and shoulders above the rest and he will win his fourth Ballon d’Or at the end of the year. No contest, no doubt about it.
The other somewhat baffling story to emerge from Madrid this week is that of the taxi driver who has claimed he had his wallet stolen by Martin Montoya! All I can say to this is that I reckon there is more chance of Rayo winning the league than there is of there being any truth to the taxi driver’s story. Then again if David De Gea can get caught shoplifting a doughnut then who knows what these vastly overpaid young men can do!
Rayo started the season with two straight wins but since then they have only managed four more points and they have slipped down to 12th place. Coach Paco Jemez took over at the club this summer after five seasons coaching in lower divisions and it seems as if his team will come out to play more of a pressing game rather than parking the bus, so it should prove to be an open and exciting game.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Bartrá, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Dos Santos, Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Tello, Messi, Villa, Alexis.
Possible starting XIs:
Rayo: Ruben, Tito, Galvez, Jordi Amat, Casado, Javi Fuego, Adrian, Jose Carlos, Piti, Dominguez, Leo.
Barça: Valdés, Alves, Bartrá, Adriano, Alba, Iniesta, Busquets, Fabregas, Pedro, Messi, Villa.
My prediction: Rayo 2 Barça 4