Messi shines as Barca survive scare to see off Rayo

Lionel Messi created a goal and scored another as Barcelona came from behind to beat struggling Rayo Vallecano 3-1 at home on Saturday and stay seven points clear at the top of La Liga.

Rayo, who have now lost their last 12 games against Barca, took a shock lead midway through the first half when forward Raul de Thomas — who is on loan from Real Madrid — ran past two defenders before arrowing a shot into the bottom corner.

The Madrid side’s unlikely lead at the Nou Camp lasted a quarter of an hour and ended when Messi whipped in a free kick for Gerard Pique to appear unmarked and head home.

Barca won a penalty early in the second half when Luis Suarez was fouled and Messi converted to put the league leaders in front and the Uruguayan forward made sure of the points with a simple finish from close range in the 82nd minute.

Coach Ernesto Valverde started without Ousmane Dembele and Ivan Rakitic but fielded an otherwise first-choice starting 11 even with a Champions League last-16 second leg against Olympique Lyonnais coming up on Wednesday.

Record signing Philippe Coutinho started instead of Dembele but yet again failed to dovetail with Suarez and Messi in attack and missed the target with both chances which fell his way.

France international Dembele was introduced at the start of the second half for midfielder Arthur Melo and Barca immediately looked more incisive down the right hand side, from which Suarez earned the penalty that Messi converted.

Coutinho was taken off with 10 minutes remaining and received a smattering of boos from the Barca fans, and his replacement Rakitic had an instant impact, darting into the area to reach a pass and promptly laying it off to Suarez to score.

The win, which followed successive victories over Real Madrid in the league and Copa del Rey, restored Barca’s seven-point gap over nearest challengers Atletico Madrid, who earned a 1-0 victory at home to Leganes.

Rayo are 19th in the standings and two points from escaping the drop zone as the pressure mounts on coach Michel.

“We have had a very tough run of games, in theory today’s should have been easier but we know that these games are very difficult to play,” Pique told reporters.

Barca coach Valverde also emphasised how tough the match was.

“The game was hard from the outset and became even harder, De Thomas scored a goal out of absolutely nothing,” he said.

“I give a lot of value to every win, it’s important to keep stringing together victories. We weren’t able to take the lead which is what we should be looking to do but the positive thing is the team adapted very well.”