Barcelona will look to further consolidate their position at the top of the La Liga table, when they host strugglers Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.

After dismantling their arch-rivals Real Madrid on two separate occasions in the last week, Barcelona will look to strengthen their hold at the top of the La Liga table, when they take on minnows Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou this weekend.

With 60 points from 26 matches, Ernesto Valverde’s side have opened up a seven-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid, following their 1-0 win against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu last weekend. Post the El Clasico triumph, a completely-altered Barcelona side lost 1-0 to Girona in the Supercopa de Catalunya during the week.

But, that result is unlikely to have any bearing on the team heading into Saturday’s encounter. However, the reigning champions cannot afford to be distracted by the all-important UEFA Champions League second leg tie against Lyon in the coming week and need to get the job done against the relegation battlers.

Rayo Vallecano find themselves in the 19th position in the La Liga standings, with just 23 points collected from 26 games. The Madrid-based outfit come into the game on the back of five consecutive defeats in the league, with their latest game ending in a 0-2 loss to Girona at home.

However, they will take confidence from the fact that they ran Barcelona very close last time, losing 2-3 at home owing to two last-minute goals from Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez. And, manager Michel will be hoping that his side are able to churn out a similar performance at Camp Nou and come away with a positive result.

Team News & Tactics

Barcelona

The champions continue to be without the services of defender Thomas Vermaelen and midfielder Rafinha due to injuries, while French centre-back Clement Lenglet is suspended for the game. With the tie against Lyon in mind, Valverde is likely to shuffle his pack for the weekend’s game to keep his key players fresh for the European clash.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen is the obvious choice between the sticks for Barcelona. Nelson Semedo is expected to start at right-back ahead of Sergi Roberto, while Gerard Pique should hold on to his spot at the heart of the defence. Samuel Umtiti is line to start alongside Pique, having featured for 45 minutes against Girona in the midweek. Jordi Alba completes the back four for the home team.

There are no injury or suspension concerns for the Catalans in midfield, apart from the absent Rafinha. Valverde might look to rest Sergio Busquets ahead of the UCL encounter, however, meaning Ivan Rakitic is likely to drop into the midfield anchor role against Vallecano.

Arturo Vidal should come into the starting lineup for Saturday’s game, while the third slot in the centre of the pitch is likely to be taken up by Carles Alena, despite having played the full ninety minutes against Girona. Arthur, who returned to full fitness only recently, could be held back.

Captain Lionel Messi is likely to start out on right flank for Barcelona, while Luis Suarez is also set to feature from the get go, with Kevin-Prince Boateng not included in the matchday squad. On the left side of the Barcelona attack, Philippe Coutinho could start ahead of Ousmane Dembele.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Vidal, Rakitic, Alena; Messi, Suarez, Coutinho

Rayo Vallecano

There are just two players unavailable for Rayo Vallecano boss Michel heading into the weekend encounter against the champions. Gorka Elustondo remains sidelined as he continues his recovery from the ACL injury, while Abdoulaye Ba is suspended or the clash.

Having set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation in the last match, Michel is likely to switch back to a three-man backline for Saturday’s game. Stole Dimitrievski is likely to be a busy man in the goal for Los Franjirrojos and will need all the protection he can get from Jordi Amat, Emiliano Velazquez and Alejandro Galvez, who will come in for the suspended Ba.

Luis Advincula and Alex Moreno will slot in as the wing-backs on the right and left sides respectively and look to keep an eye out for the marauding runs from the Barcelona full-backs Semedo and Alba. The duty of offering protection to the defence from the middle of the park will fall on Mario Suarez and 22-year-old Spaniard Santi Comesana, who is likely to be preferred over Giannelli Imbula.

30-year-old Oscar Trejo, who has one goal and four assists this term, will slot in on the left side of the attacking trident for Rayo and look to provide the supply line for leading goalscorer Raul de Tomas. Adrian Embarba should get the nod on the right flank.

Probable Lineup (3-4-3): Dimitrievski; Amat, Galvez, Velazquez; Advincula, Comesana, Suarez, Moreno; Embarba, de Tomas, Trejo

Key Stats

  • Barcelona have won each of their last 12 La Liga games against Rayo Vallecano.
  • Rayo Vallecano have won only four of their 35 La Liga meetings with the reigning champions (D8 L23), three of which came with current manager Míchel on the pitch.
  • Barcelona have kept a clean sheet in nine of their last 13 league outings, after having conceded at least one goal in the previous 11 matches.
  • Barcelona’s star striker Luis Suarez has been involved in six goals in his four La Liga appearances against Rayo Vallecano (5 goals and 1 assist).
  • The Blaugrana have scored at least 3 goals in 11 of their last 12 matches against Rayo Vallecano in all competitions.

Player to Watch

Philippe Coutinho

Not living up to the expectations (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)

Not living up to the expectations (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

It has been a disappointing first full-season for the Brazilian playmaker, after he completed his dream move to Barcelona in January last year from Liverpool. Coutinho, till date, has managed returns of just 4 goals and 2 assists from 24 La Liga appearances this season, which is well below the standards expected from a player of his ilk.

The former Liverpool superstar has lost his place in the starting lineup to Ousmane Dembele, who has been impressing with consistent performances. But, the Frenchman is likely to be benched for the weekend, keeping in mind the European encounter against Lyon, providing Coutinho the perfect opportunity to make a mark.

Coutinho last scored in the Spanish top-flight way back in October last year, while his last assist came back in January. The Brazilian is long overdue for a starring performance and the match against a beleaguered Rayo Vallecano side could be the ideal springboard for him to bounce back into form.

Prediction

Barcelona 2-0 Rayo Vallecano

Last time these two teams met, Rayo Vallecano gave Barcelona a real run for their money, but the champions ultimately prevailed, courtesy of late goals. A recurrence of a similar performance from the minnows this time out is highly improbable given the defensive stability that Ernesto Valverde’s men have shown in recent matches.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are likely to start, despite the looming European fixture against Lyon and while the duo have not been in the best of forms of late, they should help Barcelona see off the relegation battlers comfortably at Camp Nou on Saturday.

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