Barcelona aims to rebound against Rayo

Barcelona looks to close the gap to Spanish leader Real Madrid and rebound from its first loss of the season when it hosts Rayo Vallecano on Tuesday.

The defending champion will be bolstered by the return of Spain midfielders Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.

Iniesta missed the past two games with a left thigh injury, and Fabregas was rested as a precaution during Barcelona’s 1-0 defeat at Getafe on Saturday. The return of the two playmakers almost brings Barcelona’s squad back to full strength with only Netherlands midfielder Ibrahim Afellay still sidelined.

The defending champion’s first loss in 27 games dating back to last season left it six points adrift of Madrid.

The last time it trailed its fierce rival by six points was during the 2007-08 season, just before coach Pep Guardiola took over and quickly made Barcelona the dominant force in Spanish and European football with a club record 12 trophies.

Even so, Guardiola said on Monday that his team needs to stay focused on its own progress.

”The challenge isn’t to cut Real Madrid’s six-point lead, but rather to represent this club and perform the best we can,” Guardiola said. ”We know that Madrid is going to be tough to beat, but we will give it our all until the very last day just like we have since the first.”

Barcelona has struggled away from home this season, but the Catalan side is on an impressive run at Camp Nou stadium where it has won six of seven league games, outscoring its opponents 30-0.

While the rest of the Spanish league won’t play until the weekend, Barcelona has had to reshuffle its schedule to make room for the upcoming Club World Cup.

After playing Levante on Saturday, Barcelona faces BATE Borisov in the Champions League four days later, before visiting Madrid on Dec. 10.

With the Spanish media already gearing up for that first ”clasico” of the season, Guardiola doesn’t want his team to get caught looking beyond Tuesday night.

”Madrid is putting maximum importance on each game because it hasn’t won this competition in a while,” Guardiola said. ”My idea of sport is to respect all adversaries. That is why I said that Getafe was a good team and why I say the same thing about Rayo.”

Despite its 2-1 loss to Valencia on Saturday, Rayo is still the top-performing promoted side this season.

The Madrid-based team sits 10th and has only lost two of its seven away games.

Forward Miguel ”Michu” Perez leads Rayo with five goals, while ex-Espanyol striker Raul Tamudo has chipped in with four more.

Rayo coach Jose Sandoval said he would not change his team’s balanced attacking approach just because he is facing ”the best coach there is.”

”This is like a bullfight,” Sandoval said. ”Either you are carried out on the shoulders of the crowd as the big winner, or you end up in the emergency room. You have to be brave.”