Barça stay top of La Liga for another week after a crushing 6-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou. . The result never looked in doubt from the moment Adriano Correia fired Barça in front in the second minute and Leo Messi scored a trademark dink to make it 2-0 before the break. Alexis and Pedro added to the score early in the second half before Messi made it 5-0 with his 228th league goal for Barça which took him past Alfredo Di Stefano and equalled Raul in third place in the overall goals scored in La Liga. The night was completed with Neymar returning from injury to score a brilliant sixth just before the end.
With Manchester City on the horizon Tata Martino chose a strong team which responded with an excellent performance. Only Xavi, Mascherano and Jordi Alba were rested and Martino paired Fabregas and Iniesta in midfield, brought in Adriano at left back and gave Puyol his first league start since November, pairing him with Piqué for the classic central-defensive duo’s first start together since the 2-0 defeat at AC Milan in last season’s Champions League.
It took just 96 seconds for Barça to take the lead when Adriano received the ball by the left touchline and then cut inside past one before letting fly with a superb 25-yard shot that curled just inside the far post. The goal will have made little difference to Paco Jemez’s tactics as the visitors looked to press high and compete for possession. They were nearly rewarded with a quick equalizer when Trashorras assisted Falqué but his shot lacked power and Valdés dived to his right to save.
Rayo’s approach to the game might have had more success if they hadn’t come up against Fabregas and Iniesta who both had fantastic games. Iniesta showed great vision to spot Rayo keeper Ruben off his line but his volley from the halfway line wasn’t precise enough, then in the 14th minute Fabregas was quick to lob the ball in to Messi but after a good turn the Argentinian’s right-foot shot bounced out off the outside of the post.
Pedro came even closer four minutes later after Iniesta’s dribble and pass, the Canarian took the ball in his stride and went past Ze Castro but his shot hit the inside of the near post and came out. Iniesta then sent a splendid pass in for Alexis but instead of shooting the Chilean tried to find Messi in front of goal and overhit his pass.
Barça’s dominance meant there was little seen from Rayo in attack. The visitors always tried to play the ball through midfield but with little success against a hard-working Barça, and when they did get further forward Piqué was on one of his good days to clear up. However, in the 27th minute Barça lost possession with Alves caught forward, Puyol failed to cut out a cross and Valdés needed to save first from Bueno and then again from Falqué.
It was a brief interruption of the general flow towards Ruben’s goal. The Rayo keeper needed to make a tremendous leap to his left to keep out another right-foot effort from Messi but he couldn’t stem the flow much longer. In the 36th minute Fabregas won a series of 50/50 balls in midfield before finally losing the ball, Rayo’s right-back Arbilla then gave a sloppy pass straight back to Fabregas who took advantage of the space left by Arbilla to thread a perfect pass through for Messi who finished brilliantly from 20 yards, scooping a chip over the stranded Ruben. Jemez was unimpressed and Arbilla had the humiliation of being subbed off before half-time.
It made little difference to the game and Barça continued in top gear at the start of the second half. Seven minutes after the break Busquets won the ball back in midfield, the ball came quickly forward to Messi who had time to turn, and although his pass to Alexis wasn’t perfect the Chilean controlled well and slipped the ball past Ruben at the near post. Rayo nearly hit straight back with a wicked shot from Larrivey but Valdés did magnificently to touch the ball out for a corner. Then just two minutes later Iniesta’s delightful flicked return sent Fabregas storming into the area before unselfishly squaring for Pedro to make it 4-0.
There was a party atmosphere now at Camp Nou and Martino brought on Neymar in place of Pedro for the last half hour. Messi missed one he would normally score and Neymar was slow with the first ball he received, allowing Tito the chance to rob him. However, Neymar made up for his first error with a fine ball to Alves who sent the chance wide. Then in the 68th minute Messi made up for his miss firing home after good work from Fabregas and Alexis which now leaves only Hugo Sanchez (234) and Zarra (251) with more goals than the Argentinian in the history of La Liga.
Puyol took a knock on the knee and needed to be replaced by Mascherano and Martino used his final substitution to rest Messi with Tello coming on for 15 minutes. Fabregas was unlucky not to get a deserved goal when Ze Castro cleared his shot of the line while at the other end Valdés made another good save to deny Rochina a consolation. The final act was saved for Neymar who after receiving from Iniesta inside the centre circle, shrugged off one challenge and darted away towards goal before crashing a scorcher from 25 yards that flew over Ruben and into the top corner. The first-half finishes from Adriano and Messi and the team-work for Pedro’s goal had been quality but Neymar’s run and strike was a piece of beauty and the goal of the night.
At the end of the night the three points are what matters and Barça go back above Atlético Madrid who beat Valladolid earlier while Real Madrid play at Getafe tomorrow. However, the performance and goals will have given our confidence a boost before facing City at the Etihad. My only gripe is with Martino’s team selection, not because the team didn’t do its job, but because I feel he could have rested more players for the Champions League. Youngsters such as Sergi Roberto or Marc Bartra could easily have started this game in place of Piqué and Iniesta who have now both played three full games in seven days with another one coming on Tuesday. The decision to play Puyol backfired when he had to come off and thus use a substitution which could have been used to rest someone else. It’s all very well to secure the points but if we are undone by City showing greater stamina at the end of the game we may look back to tonight’s line-up with some regret.
On the positive side, by not resting players Martino has kept the team on an upward curve going into the biggest game of the season. Neymar’s return is excellent news though I will be surprised if he starts on Tuesday. However, Manuel Pellegrini will be kept guessing by Martino’s options in midfield and attack with Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi and Neymar fighting for five places. Messi is the only certainty though on tonight’s form it would be a crime to leave out Fabregas or Iniesta. I think the other two places will go to Xavi and Pedro and Martino will go for a starting XI at the Etihad of Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Pedro, Messi and Iniesta.
Barça: Valdes 7.5; Alves 7, Pique 7.5, Puyol 6.5 (Mascherano m68, 7), Adriano 7.5; Fabregas 9, Busquets 7, Iniesta 8.5; Alexis 7.5, Messi 8.5 (Tello m74, 6), Pedro 7 (Neymar m62, 7).
Rayo: Rubén; Arbilla (Tito m41), Saúl, Zé Castro, Mojica; Baena, Trashorras, Bueno (Viera m62); Falque, Rochina, Larrivey (Longo m73).
Goals: m2 Adriano 1-0, m36 Messi 2-0, m53 Alexis 3-0, m56 Pedro 4-0, m68 Messi 5-0, m89 Neymar 6-0.