In what was a really lively encounter, Barcelona finally shipped 5 goals and kept a clean sheet against Rayo Vallecano. The result brings Tito Vilanova’s run in the league to 8 wins and 1 draw in 9 games. This equals Van Gaal’s record in the 1997/1998 season, which up until now was considered Barcelona’s best ever start in La Liga.
The match itself was really an end-to-end affair. Rayo coach Paco Jemez, channeling his inner Guardiola by way of a similar outfit, opted with a starting 4-5-1 meant to outnumber Barcelona in midfield. Jemez was true to his word after criticizing Celtic’s approach and went with a very brave strategy. A high defensive line for the offside trap and high pressure up front meant there was less time on the ball for Barcelona and it really showed. The approach worked well at the start, with Barcelona struggling to build up any meaningful play in the first 15 minutes. Barcelona was constantly under pressure by the Rayo players and failed to find their rhythm.
Rayo received their first corner kick in the opening minute and Barcelona was already looking extremely uneasy, with Song and Adriano the starting central defense pairing. In the 9th minute, as Barcelona was under heavy pressure from the Rayo right flank, a miscontrol from Alba was capitalized by Leo Baptistão who went down too easily against Fàbregas on the edge of Barcelona’s penalty area.
During the match, Rayo continuously attempted to overload one flank at a time, making it easier for the Rayo players to both defend and attack from that specific channel. This is very brave as one misunderstanding can result in a quick counter attack opportunity for Barcelona’s players. Jemez was banking that Barcelona’s insistence on safe passes and possession meant that they wouldn’t pounce on every chance to counter attack.
For Barcelona, this meant a reliable build-up from defense was more important than ever. Unfortunately, Song and Adriano weren’t able to produce any meaningful build-up play for the opening 15 minutes of the game. Tito reacted quickly and let Song and Busquets swap places. Barcelona gradually took control and created better chances.
Rayo’s tactical preparation and relative success was short-lived however, as a Rayo midfielder was dispossessed by Pedro and Montoya, then Cesc collected the ball and sent it to Villa who beat the offside trap. To Rayo’s credit, their intensity didn’t waver one bit. They still crowded Barcelona’s penalty box when attacking and were very diligent when defending. It’s almost like they were playing a tournament final.
Barcelona almost had their second goal after a patient buildup with Messi calmly giving the ball to Xavi, who made sure that Fàbregas was clear through before passing, but the resulting shot was deflected by Ruben.
Anticipating Barça’s tendency to keep possession, Rayo was almost caught napping when Montoya surged forward in the 39th minute. Montoya was already clear with Fabregas and Villa in empty spaces on the other flank, but the right back chose to safely pass to Fàbregas who misdirected his one touch pass to the keeper.
In the whole first half, Song was very slow in reading both opponent and teammate passes. Moving him to defensive midfield helped a bit, but he was dispossessed several times and Rayo had at least three shooting chances gone to waste. Barcelona was a little bit fortunate to come out for half time with a one goal lead.
Tito made some adjustments after half time, instructing the Barça players to look for attacking chance utilizing Alba and Montoya. Song and Busquets were also moving in sync, with Song always covering for Busquets and vice versa. These two factors worked together to create Barcelona’s second goal only 2 minutes after the restart.
Busquets was looking for a pass to the forward line but it was intercepted. Rayo pounced on quickly and overloaded their left flank, looking for one-two combinations. Song was able to clear the ball and a 50-50 ball was read by Montoya who went forward and passed to Pedro. Pedro knew that Montoya was surging forward, gave him the ball, and Montoya in turn knew that Messi was arriving in the box.
The reigning Ballon d’Or’s first goal against Rayo was the 300th of his senior career in just 422 appearances for club and country. Another match, another record for Messi.
Victor Valdes was having quite a busy day. After producing some howlers in recent matches, Rayo was intent on testing Valdes on every occasion. One near post shot was saved after a clearance by Song, and another attempt by Jordi Amat from near the halfway line was blocked in the 54th minute. Sometimes you can’t help but think it was Tito’s plan to make the opponents try to shoot their half chances instead of working for a clear cut one.
In the 60th minute, Barcelona once again had Valdes to thank. Adriano was running forward, too eager to give his share of build up play. Rayo read it perfectly and Valdes saved Javi Fuego’s volley very cleanly.
Alexis Sanchez was substituted for Villa and struggled with the final product on the left flank. Xavi was replaced by Jonathan dos Santos who played well in the last 10 minutes of the match, and Alba was replaced with Bartra securing Barça’s defense.
The blaugrana carried on with the same approach and proceeded to score 3 more. Xavi scored from an Alba pass in minute 79, Fabregas scored from a Pedro cross a minute later, and Messi scored his 301st to make it 0-5 for Barcelona in the 89th minute.
Rayo’s first defensive mishap carried a huge ripple effect in the match as they had 18 shots to Barça’s 15, though only three were on target—and notching 44% of possession when most teams are usually under 40% against Barcelona week in and week out. In fact, the last team in La Liga to have 44% possession against Barcelona was Valencia in the 2010/2011 season when Barça turned around the match for a 2-1 win at the Camp Nou.
Fàbregas and Messi continued their great partnership in La Liga, and Tito is slowly but surely finding a stable and working defensive line. Adriano is started to provide some speed in the centre of defense, but it turns out that Bartra’s physique helped immensely in closing the game out. Montoya is giving Alves a reason to improve his performances, and Alba is looking to be the buy of the season so far.
Image Credit: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU – AFP