Pitchside Europe

European Match of the Weekend: Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano

Barcelona may have been well short of their best since Christmas but they remain alive in all competitions and can look forward to welcoming back Brazilian forward Neymar to reinforce their frontline against Rayo Vallecano in La Liga this weekend.

It has been a good week for the Catalan club, who returned to the top of the table with a victory over Sevilla before setting up a mouthwatering Copa del Rey final against bitter rivals Real Madrid after overcoming Real Sociedad on Wednesday.

The back-to-back wins are good news for a Barca side that have stumbled over the last month and a half, where they have only won three out of six matches in the league and crashed 3-2 at home to Valencia in their last fixture.

The signs are more positive now, however, with Lionel Messi returning to form with a double against Sevilla followed by another against Sociedad and they can now call on Neymar, who has not played since twisting his ankle in mid-January.

"There are three objectives for the season and one of those was to reach the (cup) final and then to try and win it," Barca coach Gerardo Martino told a news conference. "This is another objective completed. The team are used to getting to finals and this is a reward for their effort and I accompany them in trying to achieve their aims.

"I don't want to talk about the final as it is so far off. It is a Clasico and that says it all. The objective was to get to the final and with Madrid already there, we couldn't fail. We could not afford to miss out.

"It is difficult to say what state we will be in with so many matches to play in between. Who knows how we will be with injuries and form with two months to go? We need now to concentrate on the games we have ahead starting with this weekend."

After the Rayo game, Barca then play the first leg of an enticing Champions League last 16 tie against Manchester City next week and Sergio Busquets was in a positive mood ahead of the upcoming encounters.

"The team never tires of winning. We are playing well and looking strong in all competitions. We are in a good position," he told reporters.

There is an intriguing three-way battle at the top of La Liga with Real having clicked into gear, winning six out of the last seven league games with the only points dropped coming away to Athletic Bilbao at the start of the month.

Real also overcame Atletico Madrid with a clear 5-0 aggregate victory in the Copa del Rey. The two defeats in the cup and another away to Almeria in between is the first time that Atletico under Diego Simeone have lost three consecutive games.

Real and Atletico are both behind Barcelona on goal difference and now take on Getafe and Valladolid respectively.

OPTA HEAD-TO-HEAD STATS

OPTA MATCH FACTS

- Barcelona have won their last six league meetings with Rayo Vallecano, scoring 4.3 goals per game on average and conceding just once overall.

- Rayo have only won one of their previous 14 trips to the Camp Nou in La Liga (2-0 in 2000, with a brace from Jon Perez Bolo).

- Barcelona inflicted on Rayo their heaviest ever La Liga defeat back in 1979 (9-0).

- If only results away from home counted, Rayo would be outside the relegation zone on 11 points.

- On the last occasion that three points were level on points at the top of La Liga in the second-half of the season, Barcelona went on to win the title (level with Deportivo and Real Madrid in 1992/93).

- Lionel Messi has scored in four of his previous five league meetings with Rayo (seven goals).

- Joaquin Larrivey has participated directly in four of Rayo’s last five league goals (two goals, two assists).

- Against no other La Liga side has Pedro Rodriguez scored more goals than he has against Rayo Vallecano (five).

- Barcelona have not lost consecutive home league games since 2003.

- Tata Martino’s side have the highest possession figure in La Liga this season (67%), while Paco Jemez’s side are second in this ranking (61%).

- Barca have scored a league-high eight goals on the counter-attack this season, while Rayo are the only side not to score one after a fast break.

EUROPEAN GAMES COVERED LIVE ON SITE THIS WEEKEND

Saturday

Bayern Munich v Freiburg - 14:30

Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano - 19:00

Sunday

Getafe v Real Madrid - 16:00