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Rayo loses to Barça but takes its ball home

Madrid side ships four as reigning champion cedes possession for first time in five years

Barcelona's midfielder Cesc Fàbregas (c) gestures after scoring against Rayo Vallecano.
Barcelona's midfielder Cesc Fàbregas (c) gestures after scoring against Rayo Vallecano. AFP

“Without the ball, this Barcelona gives you a certain amount of time to catch your breath. It wasn’t the case previously. [Barça coach Gerardo Martino] excuses certain players from running off the ball so that they are fresh when they receive it. Beforehand, everyone pressurized,” analyzed Rayo Vallecano coach Paco Jémez after his side’s 4-0 loss to Barcelona. Despite being roundly defeated, Rayo did achieve something in its tiny Vallecas stadium that no other side has done for more than five years; it had more possession. Not since May 2008, in a match against Real Madrid in the Bernabéu, has Barcelona ceded control of the ball to the opposition. But Martino’s vision for the Liga champion is different than that of predecessors Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova; and so far, equally effective. There is little need to piece together 30 or 40 passes when your front line is as fluid as Barça’s, and you have Víctor Valdés in goal.

Rayo had no answer to Leo Messi, Neymar and Pedro, who scored a hat-trick, and failed to turn possession into goals, largely because Valdés is in such imperious form. The keeper, who remains steadfast in his desire to leave Camp Nou next summer, saved a penalty and everything else the home side threw at him in a match that, statistically at least, was quite even.

But possession does not equal points and Rayo’s foul count — 21 — speaks volumes about the defense’s torrid evening. “We won’t have Valdés in front of us every week,” said Jémez, whose side sits in 19th place and has shipped more goals than any other team in the division.

Barcelona’s four goals allowed it to assume the leadership of La Liga on goal difference after Atlético Madrid maintained its perfect start to the season away at Valladolid with a more modest 2-0 victory. Diego Simeone’s side has flown from the blocks this season, winning six of six domestically and its Champions League opener. Valladolid coach Juan Ignacio Martínez set up his side go toe-to-toe with Atlético and this it largely did, but neither Javi Guerra or his replacement Manucho could make any impression on one of the most miserly defenses in the division.

Rayo coach Jémez: “We won’t have Valdés in front of us every week”

“They beat us in the way that we knew they could,” noted Martínez dryly after the game. Much like the predictable Barcelona of old, Atlético does not attempt to hide its intentions from the opposition. Much like the Barcelona of old, it doesn’t need to; it is up to the other team to try and stop the plan from unfolding, and for some time now under Simeone those have proven few and far between. A trip to the Santiago Bernabéu next weekend will be the acid test for a side that is corroding, at least for now, the notion of La Liga being a two-horse race.

At the other end of the table, Osasuna finally got off the mark with a much-needed 2-1 home victory over Elche, whose late goal provided a few nervous moments in the El Sadar. It was the team’s first match under new coach Javi Gracia, the Osasuna board having taken the decision to jettison the long-serving José Luis Mendilibar after a woeful start to the season.

That left Sevilla bottom of the pile pending Sunday’s late fixture away at Valencia, while the rest of Saturday’s games all ended in stalemate. Almería carved out a lead at home to Levante only to be pegged back for the fourth time this season from a two-goal advantage. Francisco Javier Rodríguez’s side has yet to win a game despite scoring twice in every one contested: Christian Fernández was the pantomime villain in the Mediterráneo stadium, incurring two yellow cards and conceding a penalty in the space of a minute. “The referees are doing us no favors at all,” observed Rodríguez after the match.

Other results: Real Sociedad 0-0 Málaga; Betis 0-0 Granada.