Sitting ten points behind Atlético Madrid (who have a game in hand), the La Liga title looks very unlikely for Ronald Koeman and company. The Champions League, meanwhile, is also unlikely due to a difficult match-up with Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16.
That leaves the often less-coveted Copa del Rey as Barcelona’s only available trophy this season. That trophy drought could reach more than 700 days even if they are to win it. Barcelona has won the competition 30 times, more than any other Spanish team, and has won five of the last ten. They have also participated in eight of the last ten Copa del Rey finals.
Culers might be a tad desensitized to winning the Copa del Rey, but hopefully the desperation for a trophy snaps them out of it. For teams like Mallorca or Real Zaragoza, the Copa del Rey trophy is a landmark moment in the club’s history. Barcelona should be fighting for La Liga and Champions League cups, but that doesn’t mean Culers should take the King’s Cup for granted.
Yet, even if fans are overlooking the competition, Koeman’s squad list indicates that the Dutch boss is not. Sergiño Dest remains out injured, but Lionel Messi returns from suspension. I frustratingly lamented on the recent edition of the podcast for Konrad de la Fuente and Álex Collado to either get called up and play or not get called up at all, and it seems that Koeman is choosing to do the latter. This will be Barcelona’s best available XI; don’t overthink it.
It should feel like a Messi game is coming. He’s rested and ready to win a trophy. Messi being ready to play could get the best out of Ousmane Dembélé.
Sergio Busquets is suspended for Athletic Club, so any expectation that he might start is a guarantee that he will start. The best players against Elche, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, will start next to him in Koeman’s 4-3-3. Sergi Roberto isn’t back yet, so it will need to be Mingueza as the right-back.
Rayo Vallecano is a team with some faces that fans of the Premier League and La Liga may know and they could be a difficult side to break down due to the steady figures in the middle. Led by former Athletic Club right-back turned second division manager Andoni Iraola, the Madrid side is an experienced unit.
Mario Suárez, best known for his Atlético Madrid days, and Óscar Trejo, who spent time in La Liga with Mallorca, Sporting Gijon, and Rayo over the last decade, are the elder heads in midfield.
Former Real Madrid and Manchester City youth product José Pozo is the creative fulcrum for the team. His playmaking through the middle serves as a foil to Álvaro García out on the wing. García is the team-leader with five assists, and has spent his entire career bouncing between the first, second, and third divisions of Spanish football.
The striker will either be 20-year-old Antoñín, on loan from Granada and scorer of six goals, or former Manchester United prospect Bebé, who started the previous game against Mallorca. They’ll be expecting plenty of crosses from arguably Rayo’s most impactful player, right-back Luis Advíncula.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alba, Lenglet, Araújo, Mingueza; Busquets, de Jong, Pedri; Dembélé, Griezmann, Messi
Rayo Vallecano (4-2-3-1): Dimitrievski; García, Catena, Velázquez, Advíncula; Trejo, Suárez; García, Pozo, Palazón; Antoñín
Dan Hilton is an American journalist, broadcaster, and current Editor-in-Chief of BarcaBlog. Extensive work as a play-by-play broadcaster, producer behind the scenes, and quite average player in his younger years has given him a well-rounded and informative perspective on the sport. Alongside BarcaBlog founder Francesc, Dan started The Barcelona Podcast in 2017