By Mark Elkington
MADRID, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Possession-kings Barcelona had less than 50 percent of the ball for the first time in five years when they won 4-0 at Rayo Vallecano in La Liga on Saturday.
The Spanish champions always take pride in their technical ability and the amount of possession they enjoy but Barca have been undergoing something of a change in strategy under new coach Gerardo Martino.
The Argentine has been encouraging the team to mix up their playing style to avoid predictability and the sight of goalkeeper Victor Valdes and his defenders drilling long passes from the back has become more common this season.
Against lowly Rayo, who also value possession highly under coach Paco Jemez and who have the second highest percentage figures behind Barca in La Liga, the champions finally met their match.
Rayo edged them 51 to 49 percent on Saturday to end a run of 316 games where Barca have controlled possession, according to the sports and media company Infostrada.
"Rayo pressured us a lot, and high up the pitch, and at times made it difficult to play the ball out from the back with short passes," Martino told a news conference after winning the game with a hat-trick from Pedro and a goal by Cesc Fabregas.
"Sometimes in these types of games when under intense pressure it is necessary to earn ourselves some breathing room."
The last team to register higher possession figures in a match against Barca were arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Real triumphed 4-1 in a 'Clasico' at the Bernabeu in May 2008, just before possession guru Pep Guardiola took the helm at the Nou Camp for four trophy-ladened years with the club.
"To beat Barca in possession fills me with great satisfaction," said Jemez. "We lack finesse in front of goal but we are on the right track."
Valdes, who saved his second penalty in three days during the game, sought to play down the significance of Barca's apparent style change.
"At the end of the day everyone is making too much of this topic," said the Spanish international.
"We will try to remain loyal to our style of play but we have a new coach and he may have some new ideas."
Barca top La Liga with 15 points from five games while Rayo are second from bottom on three points. (Reporting by Mark Elkington editing by Tony Jimenez)