Following the splendid 4-0 victory over AC Milan in the Champions League Barça return to La Liga tomorrow night (Sunday 9 pm) with a home game against Rayo Vallecano. The Blaugrana will be without captain Carles Puyol who underwent a operation on his right knee on Friday night that will see him sidelined for at least four weeks, while Xavi Hernandez will also miss the game with a thigh strain.
While the win over Milan showed what this team is capable of, it also raised the question of why couldn’t the players perform at the same level against Real Madrid and the first game in Milan. There may have been tactical errors and some bad luck involved in those defeats but it is quite clear that the level of pressing was nowhere near that shown on Tuesday night.
This recent drop in form may have been due to various factors. It may just have been the almost traditional February dip, as the players’ physical preparation is planned to have them at their peak in April and May. More worrying is the idea that after so much success in recent years it is difficult for some players to find the same level of hunger and motivation week in week out. The absence of Tito Vilanova hasn’t helped of course. Obviously he is missed as a leader, but the situation must also be emotionally draining on a dressing room that, along with Eric Abidal’s illness, has suffered more than its fair share of trauma in the past two years.
Given Barça’s healthy thirteen point advantage over second placed Real Madrid it may be difficult for the players to find that all-out 100% motivation for the remaining league matches this season. Concentrating on preparing for the Champions League quarter-final with Paris Saint Germain is bound to be the priority right now, but surely there can be no better preparation than to win the two league games against Rayo and Celta before the game in Paris on April 2.
Rayo will be without left back José Manuel Casado, midfielder Javi Fuego and centre forward Leo Baptistao who are all suspended for tomorrow’s game. Coach Paco Jemez has called up Nacho Martínez, Jordi Amat and the seventeen year old midfielder Isaac Gómez (known as ‘Isi’) to his 18-man squad. Rayo’s 2-0 win over Espanyol last weekend moved them up to 8th place in the table on 41 points. With relegation no longer a danger Jemez’s men will be hoping to finish the season strongly to challenge for a place in Europe. Their away form this season has been patchy with four wins, a draw and eight defeats on their travels, though their victories were achieved on the difficult visits to Athletic, Valencia, Malaga and Betis which demonstrates their capabilities.
However, in the last three league meetings between Barça and Rayo the total score reads 16-0 in Barça’s favour. Last season the game at Camp Nou ended in a 4-0 home win with two goals from Alexis Sanchez and one a-piece for David Villa and Leo Messi. While the last two games in Vallecas have ended 0-7 and 0-5 in Barça’s favour. Rayo have only managed one victory in thirteen visits to Camp Nou, a 0-2 win in the 1999/2000 season.
Besides the absence of Puyol and Xavi, Barça are also without Victor Valdés who will complete the second of a four-match ban. Puyol’s injury leaves us with a shortage at the back and perhaps it would be wise now to give some minutes to the fit-again Marc Bartrá. Besides that we should probably give time to players who are not so regular in an attempt to have everybody in the best shape for the Champions League. In this sense we may see players such as Adriano, Song, Thiago, Fabregas and Alexis in the team against Rayo. Finally, don’t worry if you see a blond guy playing at right back. It’s only Dani Alves showing another side to his curious sense in fashion.
Barça: Pinto, Adriano, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Thiago, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Tello.
Rayo: Ruben; Tito, Gálvez, Amat, Arbilla; Adrian, Trashorras; Lass, Dominguez, Piti; Jose Carlos.
Prediction: Barça 4 Rayo 1
Date: Sunday 17 March 2013. Kick off 9 pm local time.