Lionel Messi on target as Barcelona restore seven-point lead in LaLiga
Barcelona came from a goal down to defeat struggling Rayo Vallecano 3-1 and restore their seven-point lead at the top of LaLiga.
On-loan Real Madrid striker Raul De Tomas opened the scoring for Rayo, who have now lost six straight league games, but Gerard Pique equalised before half-time and the hosts scored twice more in the second half through a Lionel Messi penalty and Luis Suarez.
Barca came into the match on the back of league and cup wins over Real Madrid and with boss Ernesto Valverde warning they needed to focus on this encounter ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Lyon.
The Catalan giants were held to a goalless draw in the first leg of their last-16 clash in France, but they had domestic matters on their mind on Saturday after Atletico Madrid earlier closed the gap at the top of the league to four points.
Valverde made four changes from the last match against Real, with Philippe Coutinho, Arturo Vidal, Nelson Semedo and Samuel Umtiti coming in for Ousmane Dembele, Ivan Rakitic, Sergi Roberto and Clement Lenglet.
Barca struggled to get their final ball right in the early stages. Messi’s cross just evaded Umtiti’s head in the 12th minute while Suarez then had a shot tipped wide by Stole Dimitrievski, although the goalkeeper’s touch went unnoticed as Rayo were awarded a goal-kick.
Messi then came close to scoring with a rare header but was denied by a Dimitrievski save, while a brilliant move in the 24th minute, with the little Argentinian at its heart, ended with Coutinho striking a weak shot at the Rayo keeper.
A minute later, the visitors took a shock lead, with De Tomas doing superbly to hold off the Barca defence and curl a lovely shot beyond Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.
It took Barca 14 minutes to find an equaliser, which came when Messi sent in a free-kick from wide on the right that was headed in by Pique.
Messi nearly scored a sublime solo goal just before half-time but was denied by a last-ditch tackle after dancing his way through the Rayo defence.
Valverde made a substitution to start the second half, with Dembele replacing Arthur, and his side were ahead six minutes after the break.
Jordi Amat stuck out a leg, bringing down Semedo, and Messi made light of the delay while the decision was checked to stroke the spot-kick past Dimitrievski.
Messi almost scored from open play shortly after but this time Dimitrievski saved, and Barca were reminded that their lead was narrow when Alvaro Garcia fired a good effort just wide from the edge of the box.
That kicked off a good spell for Rayo but Barca grabbed the crucial third in the 82nd minute when Rakitic, who had just come on for Coutinho, set up Suarez.