Nothing less than a ninth home win of the campaign will be expected on Saturday (21:30 UAE) when La Liga champions Barcelona welcome sinking Rayo Vallecano to Camp Nou.
After bitter rivals Real Madrid were sent onto the precipice of institutional crisis – Ajax finished the job on Tuesday in the Champions League – with a pair of quick-fire El Clasico victories, a contrasting challenge awaits. Los Franjirrojos also hail from the capital, yet they sit second bottom and last prevailed on January 28.
They did, however, deliver a scare in the reverse fixture and Ernesto Valverde’s hosts cannot afford to be distracted by an imminent European decider of their own against Lyon.
Here are the talking points:
HE WHO LAUGHS LAST…
Lashings of mirth have been mined by the Blaugrana hordes about the calamities that continue to befall Los Blancos.
Out of the Copa del Rey, out of the La Liga title race, out of the Champions League and with Santiago Solari on borrowed time before he becomes the 14th head coach slung out in 17 years – across two spells – under embattled president Florentino Perez.
Contrasting fortunes in Catalonia have put boss Ernesto Valverde on course to justify last month’s contract extension with a treble. A seven-point lead over Atletico Madrid is currently their property in the top flight.
The measured former Barca forward, however, is required to pull off a balancing act to keep this three-fold ambition alive. Lyon await in a round-of-16 clincher on home soil in midweek and the tie is poised at 0-0.
Barca’s big names will need to be at their best to eliminate tricky French opponents, whose form oscillates between the egregious and inspired.
Rotation, then, is key. Especially with three fixtures to be fulfilled before the international break.
This is, potentially, good news for the likes of Brazil playmaker Philippe Coutinho, Chile warrior Arturo Vidal, youngster Carles Alena and even seemingly unwanted Brazilian winger Malcom. Ex-Lyon centre-back Samuel Umtiti should also start because of in-form countryman Clement Lenglet’s suspension.
Too few alterations, and Barca may feel the pace against Lyon. Too many and Rayo may make good on the promise shown in November’s late 3-2 defeat at Estadio de Vallecas – a gripping contest Lionel Messi missed through injury.
4 - Real Madrid have lost four consecutive home games for the third time ever – the first one since May 2004. Unusual. pic.twitter.com/ybjEkWJBQ7— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 6, 2019
MESSI’S MAGIC NUMBERS
442 is a figure that has rarely featured in Barca’s collective consciousness, bar Valverde’s 2017/18 debut season.
It is, however, the number of La Liga appearances made for them by superstar forward Messi after last weekend’s 1-0 Clasico triumph. This has left him joint-second on the club’s all-time rankings, on par with the ingenious Andres Iniesta and 63 behind the incomparable Xavi.
The Argentina icon, however, has plundered a leading 408 goals and 331 wins since his top-flight bow back in October 2004, aged just 17-years old.
History also posits that these tallies should be significantly added to on Saturday.
In just nine match-ups against Rayo, he has 16 goals and six assists. Significant, even by his otherworldly standards.
Even more worrying for club-stalwart Michel, Messi has struck nine times in his last four meetings with Rayo – and claimed hat-tricks in the previous two.
His absence then was keenly felt, in a clash that required a grandstand finish from France wide man Ousmane Dembele and Uruguay hot shot Luis Suarez.
😏 Rate this attack from 9️⃣ to 1️⃣1️⃣ pic.twitter.com/3nl0tScrhM— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 7, 2019
ARE RAYO THERE FOR THE TAKING?
A damaging run of five-successive defeats looks to have cemented Rayo’s status as a yo-yo club – or ‘elevator team’ in Spanish terminology – between La Liga and Segunda Division for another season.
If a sixth is incurred at Camp Nou, Michel’s 13-year attachment to them as player and coach may be headed towards an unfortunate end. Plus, the odds increase of them soon being cut too far adrift.
Barca’s record against the current bottom three in 2018/19 reads: played three, won three, scored 13, conceded four. Ominous stuff.
Deeper analysis of Rayo’s recent record, however, lifts some of the gloom.
Late goals were required by Atletico Madrid, Espanyol (95th minute) and Leganes to defeat them. They’ve also notched in their last four away matches, edging Valladolid and high-flying Alaves 1-0.
Furthermore, Rayo struck in their previous four meetings with Barca. Albeit, conceding 19 and scoring just six.
Their 10-goal Real loanee Raul de Tomas should be fired up. So too goalkeeper Alberto Garcia and full-back Alex Moreno, who both spent time in Barca’s cantera.
They must gain strength from memories of being 2-1 up against their imminent opponents at the stroke of the 87th minute, rather than wallowing in the pain of an agonising collapse.
📷⚡️Finalizada la sesión del primer equipo en la Ciudad Deportiva. Mañana, trabajo a puerta cerrada desde las 11 h, sobre el mismo escenario, y posterior rueda de prensa de Míchel previa al #BarçaRayo.— Rayo Vallecano (@RayoVallecano) March 7, 2019
Lionel Messi’s international exile is over after the Barcelona star was named in the latest Argentina squad.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has been called up by new La Albiceleste boss Lionel Scaloni for the upcoming international friendly matches against Venezuela and Morocco.
Messi has not played for his country since the 2018 World Cup in Russia where Argentina, then managed by Jorge Sampaoli, lost 4-3 to eventual winners France in the competition’s round of 16.
Having missed six games, however, the 31-year-old – Argentina’s all-time record goalscorer – has returned with the Copa America in Brazil in sight this summer.
The Copa America holds special significance for Messi, having played in the tournament four times and been a losing finalist on three occasions.
This month’s friendlies are one of the final opportunities that Scaloni will have his squad together to prepare for the Copa America. Argentina play Venezuela at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium on March 23, before facing Morocco in Tangiers three days later.
Premier League strikers Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) and Gonzalo Higuain (Chelsea) have been left out of the 31-man squad.
Copy provided by Press Association Sport
Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic was on the receiving end of some words of high praise from former Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese manager claimed that the Croatian is one of the most underrated players in the world after his fantastic display against Los Blancos at the Santiago Bernabeu where he scored the goal that separated the two teams in the weekend El Clasico.
“For me, Rakitic is one of the most underrated players in the world,” Mourinho said speaking as a pundit for BeIN Sports.
"He's one of the most underrated players in the world.— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS) March 2, 2019
"He needs to improve his Instagram and social media because in this moment this is very important and he's not very good on that but he's very good on the pitch!"
(p.s. Mourinho couldn't resist could he?! 😂) pic.twitter.com/3w9toQYrLM
“He is a fantastic player at every level. He does defensive work on the right side to compensate for Messi. He runs miles. In ball possession he is fantastic. He is simple, he is effective. He is one of the most underrated players.”
Mourinho further spoke about how the midfielder’s job is not an easy one and he also helps Barcelona get the best out of Lionel Messi.
“Barcelona keep their model of play where there is a position that is very, very important for them, which is the midfield player on the right.
“Why? Because the midfield player on the right is the one that’s going to allow Messi play where he wants to play, which is completely free, but especially playing inside, playing in between the lines, coming for the ball, going with [Luis] Suáarez, appearing and making an overload even in the opposite side.
“That player was Sergi Roberto in the cup, today it is Rakitic on the right side of [Sergio] Busquets. This is the player that is going to cover the right side and allow Messi to be exactly where he can hurt you, which is that connection between him and Suarez.”