Neymar finds the net four times as Barcelona run past Rayo Vallecano
Neymar rose to the challenge of stepping into the absent Lionel Messi's boots by scoring four times as Barcelona overcame Rayo Vallecano 5-2 at the Nou Camp.
The visitors took a shock lead on 14 minutes through Javi Guerra, but Neymar turned the game on its head by winning and scoring two penalties before half-time.
Rayo squandered a couple of chances to level in the second half and were made to pay by the Brazilian, who scored twice more in the space of a minute and then laid on a classy cross for Luis Suarez to score the fifth. Rayo's Jozabed hit a late consolation goal but it was very much Neymar's night.
Barcelona went into the game looking for a response after slipping to a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla before the international break, but were still without injured talismen Messi and Andres Iniesta.
They could have taken the lead as early as the seventh minute when Ivan Rakitic raced clear towards goal, taking advantage of Rayo's generously high defensive line, but the Croatian's shot was saved by the feet of Rayo goalkeeper Tono.
Stand-in striker Sandro Ramirez then shot wide from inside the area, and Tono was again called into action to save a close-range effort from Suarez.
Rayo coach Paco Jemez has often been praised for encouraging his side to play attacking football at the Nou Camp but his side have a habit of crumbling against Barca, conceding six times in both of their last visits here. But Guerra stunned the stadium into silence by slamming the ball into the net after a low cross from former Manchester United forward Bebe.
Barcelona took a while to regain their composure but were correctly awarded a penalty midway through the first half when Neymar danced his way past Diego Llorente and was tripped in the area.
The Brazilian dusted himself down to despatch the spot-kick to the right of Tono and put Barca back on level terms, and promptly did the same 10 minutes later. This time he slipped the ball through the legs of Rayo defender Nacho, who blocked Neymar's path by sticking a leg out, and from the spot he rolled the ball into the far corner.
Rayo refused to wilt despite losing their lead and continued to cause Barca problems in the second half.
Guerra had an excellent chance to snatch an equaliser when he beat the offside trap to meet a long ball over the top, but the Spaniard sent his volley straight at Claudio Bravo.
Then the excellent Lass Bangoura made his way into the box unchallenged but was too ponderous. When he eventually took his shot, he sent it well wide of target.
But, for all Rayo's positive play, Neymar eventually settled the hosts' nerves by completing his hat-trick on 70 minutes. Suarez had powered his way to the edge of the area and let fly at goal. Tono managed to save the Uruguayan's shot but was helpless to stop Neymar's powerful rebound.
The goalkeeper was forced to pick the ball out of the net again just a minute later as Suarez pounced on a careless Rayo pass and raced towards goal, squaring the ball for Neymar to nudge it in.
The Brazilian was able to reward his team-mate's generosity later on, curling the ball across the box from the left-hand side, and Suarez coolly volleyed home to get a deserved goal.
Rayo managed to expose Barca's creaky defence once more, Jozabed ramming home the loose ball, but Barca were comfortable winners.