Barcelona maintained their advantage at the top of La Liga with Lionel Messi and Neymar finding the target in the space of two first-half minutes to secure a comfortable 2-0 win over Rayo Vallecano at the Vallecas. Having conceded their first goals and suffered their first loss under Luis Enrique in the 3-2 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in midweek, this was an ideal way to get back on track. While a Rayo side that finished the match with nine men thanks to sendings off for Jorge Morcillo and Javier Aquino caused some problems early on, their high defensive line was all-too readily exposed by Barcelona. Having already been denied a goal for offside, Messi timed his run right and finished deftly in the 35th minute. Just 80 seconds later Neymar did similar, having been set up by youngster Munir El Haddadi.
The win against a midtable Rayo sides takes Barcelona back to two points clear at the top of the standings following second-place Valencia’s 3-1 win over Atletico Madrid earlier on Saturday. Much of Enrique’s squad will now head off on international duty before attention swiftly turns to El clasico against Real Madrid on Oct. 25.
They are now guaranteed to go into that match above their fierce rivals following a win that was never in doubt once the opening goal arrived. In the opening exchanges, though, Rayo certainly asked questions of a Barcelona defense featuring two changes from the one that conceded three times in Champions League action in Paris. Gerard Pique was restored to the center of defense alongside Marc Bartra, while Jeremy Mathieu was switched to left-back.
Rayo were admirably determined not to just sit back and hope to temper their punishment. Instead the hosts pushed up and looked to play Barcelona at their own game. They forced Claudio Bravo, back in goal in place of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, into a smart save after nine minutes when Alberto Buneo fired a low shot from the edge of the box that the Chilean reacted smartly to in order to turn past the post.
But Barcelona worked out how to counteract Rayo’s strategy. Soon an influx a chipped passes were being sent over Rayo’s high defensive line. Messi was keenest to take advantage and was just unable to get the ball down quickly enough to stop Rayo goalkeeper Tono from blocking his effort in the 14th minute. The Argentinean was frustrated again just past the half-hour mark when he was caught a fraction offside from Andres Iniesta’s pass before firing into the net.
Just three minutes later he was to be denied no longer. It was the same formula, with Gerard Pique’s first time ball forward catching Rayo’s defense out and allowing Messi to head the ball across the path of a covering defender before, from a tight angle, lofting a delightful shot over the outrushing Tono. The match had barely kicked back off when Barcelona’s lead was doubled as Rayo’s offside trap fell apart once more. This time it was Munir who was the initial recipient of an early pass in behind. While the 19-year-old was held up by two defenders, he was able to pass the ball into the stride of Neymar, who took it into the box and dispatched a clinical low shot for his eighth goal of the season.
The scoreline should have been more emphatic before the break. Again from a Pique pass over Rayo’s ailing defense, Munir raced through on goal, but, determined to register himself this time, he ignored a wide open Neymar to his left and instead tried to take it around the keeper. His plan failed, although he appeared to have his legs clipped by Tono.
The second half was less explosive, with Rayo determined not to be caught out with such ease. Still, Barcelona had plenty more chances to make the scoreline more emphatic. Pique and Bartra both headed over the bar from corners, while Messi was just unable to turn a Mathieu cross into the net and then amazingly fired a volley over when completely free 10 yards out. An evening that started promisingly for Rayo ended with deepr disappointment when substitute Aquino was shown his second yellow card in injury time to follow in the footsteps of teammate Morcillo 30 minutes earlier.