Rayo Vallecano vs Barcelona preview: Few have met and challenged the Barca's 'tika-taka' style like Rayo have

The clash kicks off on Saturday evening

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The Independent Football

If any one La Liga match has epitomised the huge financial gulf in the competition over the last few years it has been Barcelona against Rayo Vallecano. Plenty has been written about the discrepancies between Spain’s ‘big two’ and the rest of the division owing to television deals and overall commercial income but those discrepancies have rarely been better highlighted than in matches between the Catalan giants and the relative minnows from Vallecas, a working-class district in the south-east of Madrid. On paper, at least.

On paper, in the last six matches between the clubs since Rayo’s promotion back to the Primera Division in 2011, Barcelona have won all six and scored 29 goals while conceding just the one. The latest match saw Los Blaugrana cruise to a 6-0 victory at the Camp Nou in February and in the Spanish capital they had an easier time than they did against Atletico and Real, beating Paco Jémez's men 4-0. The season before Barca won 3-1 at home and 5-0 at Vallecas and in their first year back in the top flight Rayo were toppled 7-0 on home soil and lost 4-0 at the Camp Nou. On paper, few have suffered at the hands of Barca like Rayo have.

In reality, few have met and challenged the Catalans’ ‘tika-taka’ style like Rayo have. The only stat that really mattered from that 4-0 victory last season was the final scoreline but dig deeper and the statistics show that the match was the first instance of Barcelona being second best when it comes to possession for the first time in 317 matches. Rayo had 54 per cent of the ball and even had one more shot on target than their visitors but they could not make that count. Still, it was a minor victory for Jémez, a man who is stubborn in his refreshing tactical approach to the game.

Many praised that approach but many called it naive, especially with Rayo fighting a battle to stay in the top division. Jémez, a former teammate of Barca’s current boss Luis Enrique in the Spanish national side, ignored the naysayers and eventually guided his side to a comfortable mid-table finish after it looked like the writing had been on the wall for some time. Rayo stayed up and Jémez did it his way, he was never going to change.

For much of the season Rayo had conceded more goals than all but one club in Europe’s top-five leagues. Only Fulham’s defensive record was worse as Rayo leaked goals at an alarming rate, conceding three times as many as eventual champions Atleti. They even finished the season conceding more than bottom club Real Betis, who won less than half the amount of matches than Rayo had. That did not mean a call for change. Jémez tinkered with things for sure but the possession-based game plan remained. They were second in the possession statistics only to the Catalans.

Barca, unbeaten this season with five wins and a draw from their six matches and without having conceded a goal, visit Vallecas on Saturday night and Jémez will do it his way again. Like many teams, from Elche and Almeria to Sevilla and even Madrid, Barca go up against sides who will put men behind the ball and hope to nick a goal at the other end. Against Rayo, Luis Enrique and his side know they will face a side that will go toe-to-toe with them.

“[Rayo are] a nice example of a team without a lot of money and that's fun to watch," said the Barca manager in his pre-match press conference. "I really like the team and their coach. [Paco Jémez] has his own football identity and is able to transmit that to his players. We both like the same kind of football. He's doing a great job and I think he is more than prepared to take on the big clubs.”

Few will put money on a Rayo win this weekend but you can be sure that Madrid’s ‘other club’ will give it a go. The financial gap between the sides is staggering. Barcelona rake in €140 million from television revenue alone compared to just €18 million for Rayo. It is not a level playing field. Barca can go out and sign Luis Suarez as the tip of a transfer iceberg in the summer while Jemez is left to usually bring in an entire new squad year after year. The hosts will go out into the cauldron of noise the loyal home support provides and play as though the playing field is anything but uneven, though.

One constant remains in midfielder Roberto Trashorras and that player epitomises Jémez’s approach. He may not be the most decorated footballer in La Liga but going into this weekend’s match he’s amongst the top distributors of the ball in the competition alongside Barca’s Ivan Rakitic. If Luis Enrique could pick one Rayo player to fit into his new-look side it would be him, and it’s no surprise that he spent time in the club’s famed youth academy. Trashorras made his debut for Los Blaugrana replacing Luis Enrique in a Champions League qualifying match. So far this season he is second only to Rakitic in the league’s pass attempts list with 491 compared to the Croatian’s 522.

More passes will be racked up on Saturday. As well as going into the match with an attacking mindset and with an attractive type of football top of the agenda, Rayo have made a good start to the season. Los Franjirrojos sit ninth in the table and have won their last two matches, including a last-gasp 2-1 home victory over Champions League Athletic Bilbao last time out on home soil. 

In Leo Baptistao, Rayo have a striker who may only be on-loan at Vallecas but who is a big fans’ favourite. The Brazilian came through the youth ranks at the club before Atletico signed him last season but the 22-year-old, a friend of Barca’s Neymar, has arrived back on-loan at his former club and he has scored four goals in his first five matches. He is a man in top form. Another loanee, Chelsea’s Gael Kakuta, has also impressed and chipped in with two goals. It looks like Jemez has built another side capable of more than holding their own amongst Spain’s big boys.

Barca will arrive in the Spanish capital with the usual attacking artillery of Lionel Messi and Neymar leading the way. Unlike last season, the superstars have clicked in the early matches this term with the Brazilian returning from injury to score six goals in just three starts in the league and adding another in Europe. Messi has been the architect with six assists so far but he has also chipped in five goals along the way.

The scene is set for an all-out attacking display of football and recent history suggests goals will be a given. "Both teams want to control the ball and believe it is the key to victory," said Luis Enrique, who suffered his first competitive defeat as Barca boss against Paris St Germain in midweek. He added: "without question the scoreboard will have the final say."