Barça travel to Madrid tomorrow to face Rayo Vallecano in the seventh round of La Liga 2014/15 (Saturday 6 pm). Luis Enrique’s men will be hoping to bounce back from Tuesday night’s Champions League defeat in Paris with three more points to stay on top of the table going into the next international break. There is also a chance for Claudio Bravo to break Pedro Maria Artola’s Spanish league record of 560 minutes without conceding a goal from the start of the season. Artola set his mark defending Barça’s goal in 1977 but Bravo will beat the record if he can remain unbeaten for the first 21 minutes tomorrow.
The goalkeeping debate at Barça seems to have been settled, for a while at least, in favour of Bravo. Ter Stegen’s somewhat unfortunate performance at the Parc des Princes will have reinforced Luis Enrique’s preference for the Chilean, and now the young German keeper will just have to hope his coach maintains confidence in him for the next Champions League game against Ajax at Camp Nou on October 21.
Other preferences of Luis Enrique are becoming clear such as Mascherano and Mathieu in central defence and Rakitic and Iniesta in midfield which means for the first time in a long long time Piqué and Xavi are not automatic starters while youngsters like Bartra and Sergi Roberto face an uphill battle for playing chances. Lucho has shown positive intentions to keep everybody involved but with a larger than usual first-team squad this season it is going to be impossible to keep everybody happy. Only two full backs from Alves, Alba, Adriano, Montoya and Douglas can play while with Mascherano continuing in defence we also have five centre-backs for two places. Following Xavi’s decision to stay at the club we also have the same problem in midfield where Rakitic, Iniesta, Xavi, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha are also fighting for two positions. Of course, the versatility of Mascherano, Rakitic, Iniesta and Rafinha means these players can be used to cover other positions, but it still seems unlikely that Bartra, Sergi Roberto and Montoya will get more than sporadic opportunities.
For tomorrow’s game at Rayo Luis Enrique has practically everybody available. Neymar is fine after missing training on Wednesday and although Rafinha and Douglas have still not received medical clearance, they both trained normally this morning and could be declared fit before the team travels tomorrow morning. There is a slight doubt with Thomas Vermaelen who did specific individual work-out today, but besides that the only player definitely not going is the suspended Luis Suarez.
With Paco Jemez continuing for another season as Rayo’s coach we can be sure of an open game. Jemez’s teams play a similar possession-based high-pressing game to Barça which will hopefully allow plenty of space for Neymar and Leo Messi. Last season there was much discussion after the corresponding fixture because Barça lost out on possession in a game for the first time since May 2008. Tata Martino was criticised for Barça’s tactics despite winning the game 0-4 thanks to a Pedro hat-trick and a goal from Cesc Fabregas. It’s always preferably to play with style, but, as with Bravo’s possible record tomorrow, it counts for very little if we don’t end the game with three more points in the bag.
Barça’s last three league games at Vallecas have finished 0-7, 0-5 and 0-4 so another win should not seem too difficult. However, Rayo can battle with bigger teams on their day as they have demonstrated this season with a 2-1 win over Athletic Club and a 0-0 draw with Atlético Madrid. However, their other home game in September ended in a 2-3 defeat to Elche which only goes to show their unpredictability. Rayo arrive to tomorrow’s game on the back of a 0-2 win at Levante last week with both goals scored by the 22-year-old Brazilian striker Leo Baptistao.
Rayo: Toño; Tito, Ze Castro, Abdoulaye Ba, Insua; Baena, Trashorras; Lica, Bueno, Kakuta; Baptistao.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Munir, Messi, Neymar.
Prediction: Rayo 1 Barça 3
Date: Saturday 4 October 2014. Kick-off 6 pm local time.