MADRID (AFP) – Lionel Messi marked his return from suspension with a goal in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday as Barcelona survived a scare against Rayo Vallecano to reach the quarter-finals.
With Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid already out, another upset looked on the cards when Fran Garcia gave Rayo a surprise lead at Vallecas early in the second half.
But Messi tapped in Antoine Griezmann’s pass to equalise before turning creator, sending Jordi Alba through, with Frenkie de Jong at the back post to seal a 2-1 victory.
Rayo sit fourth in Segunda, Spain’s second tier, after being relegated from the top flight in 2019, with their fans and players at loggerheads with the club’s president Raul Martin Presa amid the club’s decline.
A victory over Barcelona, 30-time winners of the competition and now strong favourites to make it 31, would have delivered a brief boost to morale, even if this compelling cup tie never had the tension it deserved without the ground’s usually raucous fans.
Still, Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman will be relieved to have made it to the quarter-finals and to see Messi on target again, the Argentinian taking his tally for the season to 15 goals.
Messi had sat out the previous two games suspended after being sent off in the Spanish Super Cup final defeat by Athletic Bilbao but looked refreshed and ultimately made the difference again.
There were less positive outings for Riqui Puig, Francisco Trincao and Junior Firpo, who all missed an opportunity to impress Koeman, who promptly whisked all three off after Rayo took the lead.
Koeman was full of praise for De Jong.
“He’s a more complete player now. As well as building from behind, his ability to arrive in the box at the right moments is helping us to create and above all score goals,” said the Barcelona coach.
“We are still in the cup and we are recovering our level in the league. We have to keep going.”
In the last eight, Barca join Sevilla, who had earlier made light work of struggling Valencia.
Valencia were beaten 3-0, their focus now on avoiding relegation from La Liga.
Real Betis, Villarreal and Levante also progressed on Tuesday.