Never before in Pep Guardiola's glorious reign have Barcelona gone into a match six
points behind Real Madrid.
A year to the day since Barca demolished Madrid 5-0 in arguably the finest team
performance seen in football, the Catalans took to the field at home to another
Madrid-based side, the promoted upstarts with the three-sided stadium from the
other side of the tracks in Vallecas. The side whose hardcore are among the
most passionate fans in Spain, but fewer than 100 made the 1,200-kilometre round
trip. It didn't help that the date of the game had been switched three times.
Among them is a young man from England's north-west who became so disaffected with
the changes at Manchester United, the club he supported, that he moved to
Madrid and follows Rayo home and away.
Most of the crowd are locals. There are no ticket touts outside the stadium charging
€150 for tickets to wide-eyed tourists, no stag groups from northern Europe in
box-fresh Barca shirts paying top dollar to see Messi et al. There hardly any of the 10,000 football tourists who flock
to Camp Nou for weekend matches, visitors who've helped push Barca's average
attendance past the 80,000 mark for the first time in their history. Judged by
their home crowds, the Catalans are currently the best-supported team in world
football, but tonight's crowd, a season lowest of 53,775, will bring that
This game has been brought forward because of Barca's commitment to play in the
World Club Championship in Yokohama next month. Before then, Barca face the not
inconsiderable task of playing Real Madrid away. They hope to win tonight's
game and go into el clasico on
December 10 three points behind, albeit with a game more played. The hunter has
become the hunted.
Beneath the main stand, the only covered one in Camp Nou where the middle and upper
classes congregate amid the smell of cooking fat from pork sandwiches and
frankfurters, the fans talk of Barca's problems.
The purchasers of the most expensive tickets are guided to their seats by beautiful
girls in high heels and understated uniforms. For a big Champions League game
there are more celebrities than the Monaco Grand Prix, but not tonight
Commentators may state otherwise, but Camp Nou is not a fervid arena, but a theatre-like
environment where the fans come to be entertained. If you want ultra culture
and flares then head east through the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece and
Only last month, the club took down the giant net fences behind each goal
which had been up for a decade after a hail of objects were thrown at visiting
Madrid players. The hated Luis Figo - hated because he was Barca's best player
and he left them for Madrid - almost copped for a pig's head.
The players emerge from the tunnel to the Barca anthem. "Tot el camp, és un clam... Barca! Barca! Barca!"
They wear tee-shirts bearing the name of Guardiola's assistant Tito Vilanova, who is
recovering from a hospital operation. Barca are overwhelming favourites to beat
a side whose all-time top-flight top scorer has just 25 goals, whose coach Jose
Ramon Sandoval is in his first season in the top flight. The 43-year-old worked
a miracle getting Rayo out of the second division in his first season at that
level last year, but his feet are firmly on the ground - as they could only
ever be in Vallecas. Sandoval, who peppers his interviews with references to
bullfighting, still helps out in the family restaurant.
Like a matador, he knows exactly what awaits tonight and says: "Everyone is
dangerous at Barca, everyone is dangerous, even the groundsman who cuts the
grass so short that the ball can move faster. But we won't change our style or
philosophy. We're brave. We should be at 120% and hope they have a bad day."
Barca have had too many bad days recently by their standards while Rayo are a classic
yo-yo club who reached the last eight of the UEFA Cup in 2001 and yet spent
four years in the third division later in the decade.
Their fans are proudly left wing, their white kit is dominated by a red diagonal
stripe. Guardiola later praises their courage as they hold Barca for the first
29 minutes. Summer signing Alexis Sanchez opens the scoring for only his second
league goal. The Chilean winger turns inside and chips a ball in off the far
post, a lovely finish. Barcelona needed it. Sanchez, who has been hampered by
injury, gets a second on 40 minutes before Villa kills the game to make it
three two minutes later. Messi adds a fourth on 50 minutes. Barca have scored
four in 21 minutes and that's enough for tonight.
Barca's problems are not at home, where they have won seven and drawn one of their
eight matches in the league, scoring 34 goals without conceding a single goal.
The problems are away, where they have won two, drawn three and lost one. Their
next away game? Real Madrid.