Lionel Messi was in impressive form as Barcelona warmed up for their Champions League meeting with Manchester City by demolishing Rayo Vallecano 6-0 at the Nou Camp on Saturday evening.
Messi become the all-time leading goalscorer in Spanish football with his two strikes either side of half-time, as Adriano, Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and the returning Neymar also got on the scoresheet against poor Rayo, who remain firmly entrenched in La Liga’s relegation zone.
Barcelona, in contrast, returned to the top of the table following Atletico Madrid’s 3-0 win against Real Valladolid earlier in the day—but the manner of the performance will have given head coach Gerardo Martino great confidence ahead of Tuesday’s European tie against Manchester City.
Messi was in sparkling form once more, as was Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, while Martino was able to give Javier Mascherano (who was a late substitute) and Xavi (who was not involved with the matchday squad) a rest ahead of that critical meeting at the Etihad Stadium.
Neymar also made his long-awaited return from injury with a second-half cameo that he capped with a stunning late strike, although the Brazilian is nevertheless unlikely to be considered fit enough to be in the starting XI to face City.
Afterwards, Martino said (per Barcelona's official website):
Scoring in the second minute of a match gives you tranquility and it makes you play differently.
I didn’t think it was all that bad when we tied or lost, and I don’t think it’s so simple after a match like today’s. If I have to choose, I’d pick a match like today’s ahead of our game against City.
We’re on form coming into the match against City, this is the perfect moment to try to qualify for the quarter-finals. Most of the players are playing really well.
While the Manchester engagement loomed large on the horizon, there was the more immediate concern of keeping pace in the title race for Barcelona to focus on. And it took less than two minutes for them to make an important step in that direction, as left-back Adriano cut inside and unleashed a brilliant right-footed drive that crept inside the despairing Ruben’s far post.
That seemed to settle Barcelona and puncture what little confidence 19th-placed Rayo—who had pledged to attack in the game’s build-up—had, but despite further chances, a second goal proved harder to acquire.
Plenty of chances had come and gone before the crucial second finally came, and it was Messi who delivered it. Fabregas won the ball in midfield and immediately played the forward through with a brilliant pass, and Messi did the rest—flicking the ball over the onrushing Ruben with a breezy nonchalance.
From that moment the game appeared to be over as a viable contest, and in the second half Barcelona really put their opponents to the sword. Messi turned provider for Alexis as the Chilean slotted beyond Ruben for the third, then three minutes later, Pedro was on to tap home after a brilliant exchange between Fabregas and Iniesta left him with the simplest of opportunities.
With 10 minutes remaining Messi then got a deserved second, as he made no mistake from a straightforward position after Alexis had found him with an astute inside pass.
At 5-0 the time had come for both sides to make changes. With Manchester City no doubt in mind, Martino withdrew Messi and Pedro Puyol—giving Mascherano and Neymar around 20 minutes to prepare themselves for the upcoming game.
Neymar, out for so long, initially looked somewhat rusty—but that was well and truly shaken off in the final minute of normal time, as he ran half the length of the field before unleashing an unstoppable shot that was in the top corner before Ruben knew anything about it.
|Barcelona Player Ratings|
It was six of the best for Barcelona, and an encouraging performance to go with it. With Manchester City defeating Chelsea earlier the same day, it promises to be an entertaining and open game at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.
|Rayo Vallecano Player Ratings|
It is a return to Champions League action for Barcelona now, as they travel to Manchester to face Manchester City on Tuesday.
Their next league game is against Real Sociedad on February 22—a day before Vallecano bid to claim crucial points at home to Sevilla.