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Up until there now there has been one major condition at the top end of the Liga table. FC Barcelona had a game in hand. On Sunday night at Camp Nou, that game was played, and has ended in a 1-0 home defeat to a Rayo Vallecano side that thus completes a league double over the Catalans and means a third consecutive defeat for Barça in competitive matches in their home stadium.
Rayo took an early lead and although Barça battled long and hard to get something back, they simply could not make it happen against a rock-solid Rayo side who, with this win, are almost certainly guaranteed another season among the elite.
The result means Barça stay second in the league, tied on 63 points with Sevilla and just two ahead of Atlético Madrid. A Champions League place next season still looks reasonably secure, but there is still work to be done if Barça don’t want to miss out on a place at the Super Cup.
The only goal of the game came after just seven minutes. Isi Palazón picked out Álvaro Garcia with a lethal diagonal pass and the Rayo striker found the perfect line to defy both Sergiño Dest and Ter Stegen to put his side into a surprise lead.
Rayo, who had gone for 13 games without a win before finally beating Espanyol this week, were again on top in the Catalan capital.
Barça still had plenty of time on their hands to set things straight, but try as they could, it just was not going to be their day. Not even when Gavi, Barça’s liveliest looking player of the first half, struck the post and Ferran Torres looped in the rebound was luck on their side. The flag was up for offside.
Despite an inspired Ousmane Dembélé setting up all kinds of possibilities with his commanding runs down the right, Barça were failing to find ways to truly trouble a Rayo side that seemed intent on sitting back and defending their lead. And they were doing so with remarkable efficiency.
The minutes kept ticking by and every time Barça looked to have found a way through, there was a white shirt or keeper Stole Dimitrievski blocking their way. Memphis was thus denied two or three fabulous chances that on other days might well have been goals, and the Rayo defence were thrusting their heads first into all the balls into the box.
Out of luck
Tensions mounted as Rayo furiously fought to keep their lead alive, pushing the rulebook to the limit, and Barça thundered forth with extraordinary passion. But if the visiting defence didn’t manage to break them down, Dimitrievski was always in the right place to keep the ball away.
There were 12 minutes of injury time, and they must have been thrilling for the neutral but for Barça fans they were agonising – and much as everything was happening in and around the Rayo area, and Dembélé had a fine strike cleared off the line, it was Rayo who had the best chance of the closing minutes as rapid counter attack ended with the ball hitting the post.
Another day to forget at Camp Nou, which also hosts the next game on Sunday at the same time, against Mallorca, when hopefully Barça can finally put this bleak run of home defeats to an end.
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