Messi returns as Barcelona rallies past Rayo in Copa del Rey

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MADRID: Lionel Messi returned from suspension to help Barcelona avoid an upset in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, scoring a goal and setting up another in a 2-1 come-from-behind win over second-division club Rayo Vallecano in the round of 16.

Messi, coming off a two-game suspension for hitting an opponent during the Spanish Super Cup final, scored an equalizer in the 69th minute and led the buildup to Frenkie de Jong’s 80th-minute winner that put Barcelona into the last eight of the Copa for an 11th straight season.

De Jong also helped set up Messi’s goal with a perfect through ball to Antoine Griezmann, who crossed for the Argentine playmaker to score his 18th goal in 11 matches against Rayo.

Fran García had put the hosts ahead on a breakaway in the 63rd.

Barcelona needed extra time to advance past third-division club Cornellá in the round of 32. It also played extra time in both Spanish Super Cup matches this year — a win against Real Sociedad in the semifinals and a loss to Athletic Bilbao in the final.

Messi was sent off in that final against Athletic on January 17. He missed the game against Cornellà and against Elche in the Spanish league. Barcelona won both matches 2-0.

“It’s been a very tough month, with several away matches, but the team showed a good mentality and deserved these victories,” Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman said. “We have improving in several areas recently.”

It was the first time Messi played in a Copa match this season. He had been rested in previous games.

The last time Barcelona failed to reach the last eight in the Copa was in the 2009-10 season, when it was eliminated by Sevilla in the round of 16.

With a team mixing regular starters and reserves, Barcelona was in control from the start at the Vallecas Stadium in Madrid. The Catalan club was denied by the woodwork three times, twice in the first half with De Jong and Riqui Puig, and once in the second with a free kick taken by Messi.

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