For the last couple of days it seems as though all thoughts have been focused on next Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Manchester City and the prospect of playing Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. However, before facing City, Barça have an extremely important league game at Camp Nou against Rayo Vallecano (Saturday 8 pm) with the added boost of the return of Neymar Jr for his first game since injury against Getafe on January 16.
The Brazilian is included in Tata Martino’s 21-man list for the game with just Xavi Hernández being rested of the possible starters at the Etihad. With the top three teams in La Liga locked on 57 points Barça can ill-afford to drop points tomorrow, and Martino has the difficult job of picking a team that will guarantee the three points while trying to reserve as much as possible for the Champions League.
It seems unlikely that Neymar will make the starting XI though Martino will be keen to give him some minutes in the second half. Piqué, Iniesta and Messi are the only three players who played the full 90 minutes in the last two games so the first two may be in line for a game on the bench while Martino will be hoping to sub Messi off well before the end if the scoreline allows. Neymar on for Messi in the 55th minute sounds about right to me. Elsewhere we could see starts for Sergi Roberto, Tello and Bartra though I expect to see a pretty strong side. The intention should be to build up a healthy lead in order to reserve energy in the later stages of the game.
The fact that Rayo are 19th in La Liga might suggest they will be a pushover, but Martino would be wise not to underestimate the opponent when the points are so essential. Rayo may only have 20 points but 11 of them have been won away from home and Paco Jemez’s men arrive on the back of a 4-1 win over Malaga last weekend. The star of that victory was 23-year-old Iago Falqué who not too long ago was one of Barça’s most promising prospects at La Masia. Falqué left to join Juventus in 2008 and after a couple of loan spells with Bari and Villarreal he signed Tottenham in 2011. The Londoners have since loaned him out to Southampton and Almeria and this season he is beginning to shine in his spell at Rayo. Ruben Rochina, Raúl Baena, Roberto Trashorras and goalkeeper Ruben Martinez also came up through Barça’s youth ranks and all five ex-blaugrana seem likely to start for Rayo tomorrow.
Rayo’s new signing Razvan Rat, who played a few times against Barça for Shakhtar Donetsk, has not been included in Paco Jemez’s 18-man squad for the trip to Barcelona and left-back Nacho Martinez misses the game through suspension. Right-back Tito faces a late fitness test so Anaitz Arbilla may deputise again. The good news for Jemez is the return of striker Johnathan Viera after injury though Joaquin Larrivey looks likely to continue as the main starting striker. The Rayo coach is unlikely to change his style so the visitors will press and compete for possession of the ball despite the risks involved. In the league game earlier in the season at Vallecas Barça failed to win the possession game for the first time in years but Rayo were hit on the counter as Barça won 0-4. That result continued a trend of big Barça wins against Rayo: in the five league meetings between the clubs since Rayo’s return to the top flight in 2011 Barça have won all five with an overall scoreline of 23-1.
Barça: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay.
Rayo: Rubén, Cobeño, Tito, Arbilla, Zé Castro, Galeano, Saúl, Mojica, Trashorras, Baena, Adrián, Lass, Iago Falque, Rochina, Bueno, Jonathan Viera, Longo, Larrivey.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Tello.
Rayo: Rubén; Tito, Zé Castro, Saúl, Mojica; Trashorras, Baena; Rochina, Bueno, Iago Falque; Larrivey.
Prediction: Barça 5 Rayo 1
Date: Saturday 15 February 2014. Kick-off 8 pm local time.