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Real Madrid have led the league for fifteen games but all that could change on Sunday when Barça take on Rayo Vallecano at the Camp Nou at noon. Madrid lost 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés on Saturday evening, and a win for the Catalans would put them back on top of the table with twelve games left to play. But they’ll have to do that with two major absentees; Sergio Busquets and Neymar Jr.
Although his ankle injury is not as serious as was originally feared, Sergio Busquets sits this game out. Speaking on the loss of such a key member of his team, Luis Enrique said “there are plenty of players who can come in – there’s Mascherano, it’s his natural position, or Xavi, Sergi Roberto or Rakitic.” There is the added concern of Neymar missing in the attack. The Brazilian picked up his fifth yellow card of the season last weekend and is suspended.
Portuguese centre back Zé Castro and midfielder Raúl Baena are both suspended for Rayo, while Ghanaian Mohamed Fatau and goalkeeper Toño are out injured. That means recalls for three players that haven’t featured in the line-up for some time: Mexican winger Javier Aquino, Argentine left-back Emiliano Insua and Senegalese defender Abdoulaye Ba.
Speaking the day before the game, Luis Enrique commented that “all opponents pose their own threat, but Rayo are one of the teams with most personality in the league … They are one of the few teams who will be challenging for possession. We are really looking forward to this game … If they pressure us well and we aren’t at our very best then we will suffer. Just like when we play teams who come and park the bus, we’ll have to find a solution or the game could get difficult.”
His former international team-mate Paco Jémez, now in charge of Rayo, vowed that “I don’t care if we lose by one or by seven, what we’re certainly not going to do is go there to defend … The idea is to go for it, to enjoy ourselves, compete and do what teams like Celta and Málaga have done. They knew that it would be difficult to beat them, but they did.”
Barça bounced back from the setback of 1-0 defeat at home to Málaga with away wins in three different competitions. A 2-1 win at Manchester City leaves them finely poised to qualify for the last eight of the Champions League. Then a 3-1 win at Granada got their Liga challenge back on track on the same weekend that Real Madrid could only draw with Villarreal, the same side Barça defeated midweek to qualify for the Spanish Cup Final.
Rayo’s form has been erratic in 2015, with four wins (two away from home at Getafe and Real Sociedad) but six defeats and no draws. But they are hanging on in eleventh place with an eight-point cushion between themselves and the relegation zone.
Ones to watch
There will be plenty of eyes on Javier Mascherano, the most obvious replacement for Busquets as the key defensive midfielder, while the absence of Neymar is likely to mean a chance for Pedro, who as Luis Enrique commented on Saturday “has a lot of individual qualities, he’s good one on one and he scores goals.” Playing alongside him is Luis Suárez, who has scored five goals in five games. The concerns that the Uruguayan had lost his scoring touch are well and truly forgotten now.
The man of the moment at Rayo is Alberto Bueno. In last week’s 4-2 win over Levante, the former Valladolid and Derby County man scored four goals in only 14 minutes. Only Bebeto in 1995 has ever achieved that feat in a shorter time in a Liga match. The game also marks the return of former FCB player Roberto Trashorras, who spoke to fcbarcelona.com this week about what it means to him.
When Rayo were in the first division from 1999 to 2003 they were very much Barça’s ‘bogey team’. The Catalans only beat them twice in eight attempts during that period. But it’s been a very different story since Rayo finally returned to the top flight in 2012. Barça have won all seven of the meetings between the sides, scoring an incredible 31 goals (more than four a game) and conceding just one. The meeting earlier this season, in which Rayo had two men sent off, ended 2-0 to Barça thanks to goals from Leo Messi and Neymar.
No matter where you are in the world we have you covered. And remember, you can enjoy live commentary in English on Radio Barça. The link will appear at fcbarcelona.com just before kick-off. Twitter users can follow @FCBarcelona for a live feed of all the action.
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