Barcelona restored their seven-point advantage at the top of the table courtesy a comfortable 3-1 victory over bottom dwellers, Rayo Vallecano.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the hosts as they found themselves a goal down in the 24th minute. After pinching the ball in their own half, Rayo sprang a swift counter-attack which culminated with Raul de Tomas curling an effort beyond Marc Andre Ter Stegen’s reach.
The home side though hit back seven minutes before the break as Gerard Pique headed home from a Lionel Messi free-kick.
Barcelona started the second half brightly and were rewarded for their efforts in the 51st minute when Nelson Semedo was brought down in the box. The resulting spot-kick was dispatched clinically by Lionel Messi.
The home side eventually put the game to bed courtesy a Luis Suarez strike in the 82nd minute.
Barcelona wasn’t at its fluent best through the course of the game. Yet, like many a time before, the hosts got the job done.
Here is a look at the three factors that helped them achieve victory:
#1. Barcelona’s midfield domination
Barcelona tried another midfield combination on Saturday with Arthur Melo and Arturo Vidal partnering Sergio Busquets. Though the Brazilian failed to stamp his authority on the game, Vidal and Busquets looked accomplished.
Busquets was quietly effective in the middle third and kept things ticking. The Spaniard accumulated 91 passes at an accuracy of 89%. In addition, he also notched up 5 tackles and 3 interceptions.
Vidal, meanwhile, enjoyed his best game in a Barcelona shirt. He was on hand to deal with everything Rayo had to throw at the hosts and made in excess of ten ball recoveries. Moreover, he put in eight tackles through the course of the game. His ball-playing wasn’t too shabby either with the Chilean mustering 95 passes at an astounding 95.8% success rate.
Last season, the Blaugrana were guilty of getting out-muscled and outrun in midfield in clutch situations. Thus, they brought Vidal on board to add a physical edge to the game.
And while he may not be the most flamboyant player on Barcelona’s ranks, his tenacity could end up proving paramount as push comes to shove (literally too) during the closing stages of the season.
After all, a warrior of the ilk of Vidal could just be the missing piece in their jigsaw.
#2. Rayo Vallecano go off the boil after their goal
A game between the table-toppers and a side battling for survival always seemed a mismatch on paper. Yet, those who watched the opening half an hour were treated to a brave display by the away side.
The visitors defended stoutly and negated the space in behind their defence. Rayo was content to play a deep line and that forced the likes of Messi, Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal to go backwards and sideways rather than forward.
Moreover, their propensity to get stuck into Barcelona had the Blaugrana worried for a while. They even threw a spanner into the hosts’ works by taking the lead against the run of play.
However, as has been the case with the away side this season, they couldn’t sustain their quality of performance. The advantage of the goal should ideally have galvanised them to scale another level. Yet, they regressed and allowed Barcelona into the game courtesy an elementary defensive error.
Pique was provided the freedom of the box to head home the leveller. In addition, the visitors contrived to concede a penalty through some poor defending. Thus, highlighting the problems plaguing Rayo at the moment.
Before the game commenced, not many believed that the away side could come away with anything from the Camp Nou. Yet, with the early goal, they had an opportunity to pull themselves out of trouble. But unfortunately, they only ended up slipping further into the relegation quicksand.
#3. Barcelona run Rayo ragged on the wings
Ernesto Valverde decided to field the more attack-minded Semedo at full-back whereas Philippe Coutinho got the nod ahead of Ousmane Dembele on the left flank. Though the former Liverpool man failed to inspire, the Portuguese was at his attacking best.
The right-back enjoyed a superb game and ventured forward at every occasion. However, on Saturday, he showcased more composure than previous weeks and deservedly played a crucial role in Barcelona’s second goal.
After being freed on the right flank, Semedo expertly cut inside the Rayo defender and left him for dead. The latter inevitably tripped the former to accord Barcelona a chance to take the lead from twelve yards.
Apart from the Portuguese, Jordi Alba was at his marauding best and provided width on the left wing. Additionally, Dembele impacted the game significantly after coming on at half-time. The Frenchman’s pace was a constant thorn in the visitors’ rear-guard and his direct running led to the third goal.
At times this season, Barcelona has looked vulnerable on the wings. The likes of Semedo and Dembele haven’t been consistent while Coutinho has endured a season to forget.
However, at the Camp Nou on Saturday, they faced no such issues and their constant bombarding of the flanks helped them break down a stubborn Rayo defence.