Barça return to the top of La Liga after a 6-1 victory over Rayo Vallecano in today’s midday game in front of the biggest crowd of the season at Camp Nou. Leo Messi netted a record-breaking hat-trick to draw level with Cristiano Ronaldo on 30 league goals this season but the man-of-the-match was Luis Suárez who scored twice and was involved in five of the six Barça goals.
Real Madrid’s unexpected defeat at San Mames yesterday gave Barça the chance to recuperate top spot in the title race for the first time since the start of November. Barça could not allow the chance to slip and Luis Enrique put out a strong team, making five changes to the team that started in the cup at Villarreal with Bravo, Alves, Mathieu, Xavi and Pedro coming in for Ter Stegen, Montoya, the injured Busquets, Rafinha and the suspended Neymar. The only surprise in the line-up was the absence of the in-form Rakitic who again started on the bench.
As expected Paco Jemez’s Rayo played a very high defensive line and Barça didn’t take long to look for the ball into space for Pedro or Suárez to chase. Rayo keeper Cristian Alvarez played like a sweeper, constantly coming out of the penalty box to clear. However, it was Barça’s high press that led to the first goal with Mathieu winning the ball from a Rayo throw-in near the corner flag. Xavi then played an exceptional first-time pass as the ball bounced to send Suárez into the left of the area and the Uruguayan finished splendidly with a shot with the outside of his right-foot that flew past Alvarez at the near post.
Suárez was a constant threat to the Rayo defence in the opening exchanges. In the ninth minute he took the ball past Alvarez on another charge out of his area, but then underhit his pass to Pedro which allowed Ba to clear. Then three minutes later the Uruguayan turned Ba from a Barça throw on the left and as he entered the area the Rayo defender appeared to clip him from behind but referee Gil Manzano ignored the penalty appeal.
One has to wonder how the game might have finished if the ref had awarded a penalty and sent off Ba at this point. As things were, Rayo began to play their way back into the game. Trashorras had already forced a diving save from Bravo with a long-distance drive, and as the minutes passed Insua again tested Bravo and Trashorras curled a free-kick narrowly wide of the post.
Messi was having a quiet first half by his standards but in the 32nd minute he came close to scoring a fabulous goal with a first-time volleyed reverse flick over the goalkeeper after Suárez’s chipped pass, but the ball rolled just wide and out of play before the Argentinian could arrive. The chances dried up for both teams in the remainder of the first half though there was one nimble-footed dance into the area from Iniesta but his final pass failed to find the well-marked Messi.
Rayo had responded well after briefly looking suicidal in the opening minutes but the second half would be a nightmare for the visitors. The second goal came just three minues after the restart and Suárez played his role with good movement to the right wing and a dangerous low cross which forced a defender to clear for a corner. Xavi took the kick, sending a cross to the near post where Jordi Alba, in acres of space, looped a header over the keeper and against the far post and Piqué pounced on the rebound to score his fourth league goal of the season from close range.
In the 54th minute Iniesta forced a fine save from Alvarez with a low drive but shortly after Tito was guilty of an off-the-ball tug on Suárez as a cross came into the area and Gil Manzano awarded a penalty and sent off the Rayo defender for his second bookable offence. Messi’s penalties have not be great of late and he again saw his spot-kick stopped by the diving keeper but on this occasion the ref decided the kick should be retaken for encroachment by a Rayo player. Messi took the second chance, firing his shot into the opposite corner to his first effort.
With Rayo down to ten men it looked like the floodgates would open. Rakitic came on in place of Mascherano to play half an hour as the midfield pivot and Messi quickly added two more to complete a twelve-minute hat-trick. In the 63rd minute Alba crossed from the left, a defender headed the ball more up than out, and Suárez controlled the dropping ball brilliantly, turning to shoot, and when Alvarez saved, Messi was there to score from the rebound. Five minutes later, with Rafinha now on for Iniesta, another Alba cross from the left came to Messi who sold the keeper a sensational dummy before stroking the ball into the empty net.
Adriano replaced Alba but Barça slowed up a bit. In the 80th minute a rare Rayo attack saw Bueno played into the area and Alves made a desperate lunge that brought down the Rayo player and the ref gave another penalty and sent Alves off for being the last defender. Bueno fired the penalty high into the net to deny Bravo another clean sheet.
For those of you who read my match preview you will know this now gave me my correct score bet of 5-1. However, with ten against ten the game was so open another goal seemed inevitable. Suárez forced another good save from Alvarez then after Rakitic sent him through the Uruguayan was too generous again and over-hit his pass to Messi. Then with the game in injury time Messi sent in Suárez for another chance and this time he took the ball round the keeper to score. (I promise I still cheered the goal!). There was still time for a final chance for Suárez but the overworked Alvarez saved with his foot.
Six goals and recovering top spot before we expected to make it an excellent weekend for us. If we can beat Eibar next week we will have the psychological advantage of going into the Clásico as leaders, and then the chance of going four points clear if we beat Madrid. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself and the biggest danger for Barça now could be an excess of euphoria. It is vital to keep the good momentum going with a win at Eibar but we already have a problem with Alves and Alba both suspended for that game. Luis Enrique will also be aware that both Mathieu and Mascherano are on four yellow cards which means another booking for either player at Eibar will see him miss the Madrid game.
Barça: Bravo 7; Alves 6, Piqué 6.5, Mathieu 7, Alba 7 (Adriano m69, 6); Xavi 7, Mascherano 6 (Rakitic m60, 7), Iniesta 7 (Rafinha m65, 6.5); Messi 8, Suárez 9, Pedro 6.
Rayo: Alvarez; Tito, Abdoulaye Ba, Amaya, Insua; Trashorras, Jozabed (Quini m65); Lica (Aquino m69), Bueno, Kakuta; Leo Baptistao (Manuche m80).
Goals: m6 Suárez 1-0, m48 Piqué 2-0, m56 Messi (pen) 3-0, m63 Messi 4-0, m68 Messi 5-0, m81 Bueno (pen) 5-1, m91 Suárez 6-1.
Yellow cards: m27 Tito, m29 Mascherano, m54 Tito, m57 Alba, m84 Aquino, m90 Adriano.
Red cards: m54 Tito, m80 Alves