This is precisely the kind of game Barcelona were hoping to get out of Luis Suárez when bringing him in this summer, and the kind he's been delivering regularly as of late. With his combination of confidence, unceasing work, deadly finishing, and selflessness, he was able to will an unimpressive Barça to a blowout victory that now has them atop the league table.
The opening moments of the match seemed to predict a huge Barcelona victory over the admirably though suicidally expressive-playing Rayo Vallecano, though the ultimate route to the final scoreline was less linear than the it appeared. Not even ten minutes into the game, Barcelona turned Rayo over from a throw-in and a deft touch from Xavi sent Suárez in on goal. Suárez's smooth stroke with the outside of his boot from a difficult angle evinced a striker dripping with confidence:
Almost immediately after going up, it became obvious that Barcelona were not at their sharpest on the day. They had difficulty stringing passes together or finding teammates making dangerous runs. In a first half when Lionel Messi was almost completely anonymous, Suárez, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta were the only three Blaugrana players having any semblance of a good game.
Indeed, with a strong shout for a penalty that wasn't given, a slightly misplaced pass to a wide-open Pedro, and a barely missed Messi chip after a sublimely lofted through ball, Suárez was very close to single-handedly spotting his team four goals in the first half. Instead, his opener was the only goal in the first 45 minutes.
Barcelona started better after the break. Four minutes into second half play, Gerard Piqué doubled the home team's lead from a rebound off of a corner. A few minutes later, Suárez was again brought down in the box, this time winning his team the penalty and getting a Rayo defender sent off for a second yellow. Messi saw his first penalty attempt saved, but the ref gave him a second shot he would not miss after a couple Rayo players entered the box before Messi could take his shot.
The penalty seemed to awaken Leo, most likely because he sensed the chance to snatch a couple more goals from 10-man Rayo. He was back to his typical self, running all about the pitch and dropping deep to start attacking moves. Still, it was the Uruguayan who created the Argentine's second, after a wicked little touch, turn, and snap shot was saved by the keeper but only for the rebound to fall right into Messi's path for him to tap in:
Messi's hat trick goal was more like what we're used to from him, where in just two touches in the space of about two yards, he was able to fool three Rayo players before calming passing the ball into an open net:
This kind of interplay was typical of the second half, where Messi and Suárez continually found themselves in tons of space on the break and only the tiniest of errors in passing angles and a heavy touch or two prevented each of them and fellow forward Pedro from really running up the score.
Rayo would get one back from a penalty that got Dani Alves sent off in the 81st minute, but it didn't really change things. Barcelona kept pushing forward, and Suárez eventually got his well-deserved second goal in the beginning of stoppage time:
This was a huge three points for Barcelona. Title rivals Real Madrid dropped points for the second straight match yesterday by losing to Athletic Club, and that result meant a win would put Barcelona alone at the top of the table.
In spite of the importance of the game, Barça came out pretty lackadaisically, trusting that eventually one of their stars would come up with a few moments of brilliance to get the win. Even with Messi's hat-trick and added assist, the crucial efforts that secured this victory didn't come from the feet of their best player. As has increasingly been the case recently, those plays came from the boots of their newest key man, Luis Suárez. Is it El Clàsico yet?