BARCELONA – FC Barcelona was far from its best, but managed to make the most of its opportunities in a 3-1 La Liga victory on Saturday over Rayo Vallecano.
Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez scored a goal apiece for the home side, which stormed back in this matchday-27 contest after falling behind midway through the first half at Camp Nou.
Ernesto Valverde shook up his starting line-up with an eye on his team’s second-leg, round-of-16 Champions League match Wednesday against Lyon (tied 0-0 after the first leg), opting to leave Ousmane Dembele, Ivan Rakitic and Sergi Roberto out of his starting 11.
Rayo manager Michel, meanwhile, made no secret of his defense-minded approach, placing five men in his squad’s back line in an attempt to stymie Barça’s lethal attack.
The strategy was effective early on, as the Catalans struggled to find space and failed to mount any offense either from the wings or with Messi and Philippe Coutinho in the middle of the field.
The hosts eventually started making their presence felt in Rayo’s area, although a header by Messi and shots by Suarez and Coutinho failed to open the scoring.
Instead it was Rayo’s Raul de Tomas who landed the first blow in the 25th minute when he capped off a rapid counter-attack by curving a long-range, right-footed blast past keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Barça immediately stepped up their pressure in search of the equalizer and got their reward in the 39th minute on a dead-ball opportunity, with Messi sending a cross in from the right side and Pique breaking free from the wall of defenders to head it home.
The goal by the Spanish defender, whose strong play was a major factor in two recent wins over Real Madrid, marked a turning point in Saturday’s contest.
After the break, Barcelona kept pressing forward and won a penalty when Jordi Amat tripped up Nelson Semedo in the area.
Messi, who was playing his 443rd La Liga game, second-most all-time among Barcelona players after Xavi Hernandez (505), converted his try from the penalty spot in the 51st minute to record his 26th goal of the La Liga season.
Barça then stretched their lead to 3-1 in the 82nd minute when Suarez scored off a pass from Rakitic, who had come on as a late substitute.
Afterward, Valverde said Barcelona’s fourth-straight La Liga win was hard-fought and badly needed considering that Atletico Madrid continues to give chase.
“I had the sense the game was very difficult, even more so because De Tomas scored a goal out of nowhere. You see how our rivals keep winning and you don’t see anyone celebrating. It’s very difficult,” he said.
With the victory, the defending champions remain seven points clear of Atletico Madrid, who also have won four consecutive games in the domestic competition after edging Leganes 1-0 earlier Saturday.