Two goals from Leo Messi and another from David Villa earned Barça an entertaining 3-1 victory over Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou tonight to retain the 13-point advantage over second placed Real Madrid with just ten games remaining in the 2012/13 season. However, there was a price for the victory as Adriano Correira will now miss the next four to six weeks after tearing a muscle in his right thigh.
With Carles Puyol and Xavi out injured and Victor Valdés suspended, Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura also gave a rest to Dani Alves and Pedro, putting out a starting XI of Pinto, Adriano, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi and Villa. Paco Jemez’s Rayo have the third highest rate of possession in La Liga and right from the start they showed ambition to get forward with Trashorras turning in the area but shooting wide after just 44 seconds.
With both teams playing a similar high pressing the result was an open game but Barça’s class began to show quickly. Messi should have scored in the fifth minute after Villa and Fabregas set him up but a slip after his first control denied him a sure goal. Two minutes later Messi won a free kick twenty five yards out which he curled over the wall only to see the ball bounce out off the crossbar.
With Villa and Alexis in the side Barça continually looked for the pass behind Rayo’s high defence and there was also plenty of threat from the full backs getting forward. In the 20th minute Iniesta sent Alba into the left of the area but his cross was cleared, the ball came back to Iniesta who sent a long cross-field pass to Adriano who was charging into the area on the right but the Brazilian needed to stretch at speed and the unfortunate result is yet another muscle injury which meant an early substitution with Dani Alves coming on sporting his new look blond haircut.
Barça took the lead soon after. Iniesta played the ball to Messi near the halfway line and with the subtlest touch to skip past Figueras and the four-time Ballon d’Or winner was streaking away into the Rayo half. There were only two Rayo defenders in his path and Messi had Villa to the left and Alexis to the right, he chose a perfectly timed pass to the left and Villa’s finish was typically clinical past the advancing keeper Ruben.
Rayo continued to try and push forward but despite managing around 40% of the possession throughout the game nearly all of their shots came from distance. Trashorras had their best effort before Villa’s goal, with a dipping shot straight at Pinto, while the Barça keeper also had to be alert to gather Piti’s low drive in the 35th minute. Then five minutes before half time Busquets won the ball and played a quick long pass for Villa to chase, the Asturian held the ball up before touching the ball on for Messi’s run and the Argentinian hammered low past Ruben to extend his incredible record-breaking scoring run to eighteen league games. Villa might have made it 3-0 just before half time after Fabregas won the ball and sent a good pass into the area but this time El Guaje pulled his shot past the far post.
The chances continued to come at the start of the second half. Iniesta found Alves bursting into the area but, with players free to his left, Alves chose to shoot and he was unlucky to see his effort hit the inside of the post and fly out across the goalmouth. Pinto had two bouncing long shots to deal with from Chori Dominguez and Piti but the next good chance fell to Alexis after a brilliant combination from Alves and Messi on the right but when the Brazilian pulled the ball back, the Chilean fired disappointingly wide from ten yards.
There was then a good chance for Rayo after a corner caught the top of Piqué’s head and carried to the far post where Dominguez volleyed into the sidenetting. Then from Rayo’s next corner Alba sent a long clearance out towards the halfway line where Villa battled for the ball under pressure from Adrian, with Villa showing great fighting spirit to keep possession and then force a pass through for Messi. A quick spurt was sufficient to take Messi past the unfortunate Arbilla before stylishly finishing with a trademark dink over the keeper. Three-nil and just for the record that’s 55 goals in 43 games from Messi this season, 42 of them in 28 league games!
Perhaps understandably Barça’s intensity dropped in the last half hour. Old foe Raul Tamudo came on as a Rayo sub and brought back some unhappy memories for culés by scoring with his first touch, converting Piti’s cross after a short corner. At the other end Tito gifted the ball to Messi in the area, and after an exchange of passes with Villa, Messi’s goalbound shot was tipped over by Ruben. The result never looked in much danger but there were a few nervous looks around Camp Nou when Tamudo came close to a second in the 76th minute, only to be denied by Alves’s quick intervention.
There could have been more goals at either end with Villa testing Ruben again with a low shot after cutting inside. There was one final effort from Rayo with five minutes to go when Piti nearly surprised Pinto with a powerful shot that the Barça keeper managed to tip over. But with Rayo tiring the last two chances fell to Barça. First, Alexis made a good run into the area but when he pulled the ball back Alves missed his kick. Then in injury time Messi set off on a magnificent run past Arbilla on the right but Ruben just managed to get a touch on the dink to send the ball over the bar.
All in all a pretty satisfactory performance that leaves us needing just 18 more points from the last ten games to regain the league title. We didn’t play too well until the first goal and the level also dropped in the last half hour. However, Rayo’s high defence made things relatively easy for us and we adapted our style suitable with plenty of counter-attacks. Leo Messi was again in scintillating form and he deserves to be considered the man of the match but the most positive thing to tonight’s match was the continued improvement from David Villa. Playing a very different game to his centre forward role last Tuesday against Milan he was a constant danger attacking space on the left behind Rayo’s defence, completing the 90 minutes with a goal and two assists. We now have a two week gap until our next game at Celta which is followed by the Champions League quarter-final at Paris Saint Germain on April 2.
Barça: Pinto 7; Adriano 6.5 (Alves m23, 7.5), Piqué 6.5, Mascherano 7.5, Alba 8; Fabregas 6.5 (Song m82, 6.5), Busquets 7, Iniesta 7 (Thiago m64, 6); Alexis 6, Messi 9, Villa 8.5.
Rayo: Ruben; Tito, Gálvez, Figueras, Arbilla; Adrian (Lass m62), Trashorras; Jose Carlos, Chori Dominguez (Isaac m85), Piti; Delibasic (Tamudo m69).
Goals: m25 Villa 1-0, m40 Messi 2-0, m57 Messi 3-0, m70 Tamudo 3-1.
Yellow cards: m18 Piti, m29 Trashorras, m63 Tito, m68 Ruben, m91 Pinto.