La Liga: Rayo Vallecano escaping from relegation by playing the 'right way' and next up are city rivals Real Madrid

The side from the Spanish capital with a meagre wage looked certainties for the drop before a recent run of impressive results

“Si se puede! Si se puede!”

On Sunday, March 2 at roughly 9pm Rayo Vallecano’s hopes of continuing to punch above their weight and maintain their place in La Liga looked distant. The club from Vallecas, a working-class suburb of Madrid, had enjoyed their best-ever season the year before and finished in a position that would have seen them playing European football had it not been for their financial problems. A year on and times were hard - they usually are - and alongside Real Betis, Rayo looked likely to be one of the first clubs through the top-flight’s trapdoor such were their results and such was their leaking defence, which for much of the season has been the worst in all of Europe’s top-five leagues.

Valencia, themselves not having the best of seasons and looking like they will miss out on their usual jaunt into Europe next season, were the visitors and although Paco Jemez’s side had not conceded, a rarity in a season where clean sheets have been extremely hard to come by, they did not look like scoring. That was until just after the hour mark when long-haired Argentine striker Joaquín Larrivey rose high at the back post, headed the ball into the ground and beyond Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves to send the ‘Bukaneros’, the club’s hardcore set of ‘Ultra’ fans behind that goal, into delirium. 

At 9pm the belief may have been through blinkered loyalty, but by 9.45pm the belief had been cemented. Rayo held Valencia out for the last hour to claim three points that could well prove to be the big moment of their season. “Si se puede! Si se puede!” “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!”.

Before that match Los Vallecanos were six points adrift of safety. After it that gap had closed to three and while many La Liga fans felt the writing had been on the wall in terms of relegation, Rayo had at least given themselves a chance. A chance is all they needed. Four games later and they have taken 13 points from a possible 15 to haul themselves out of the relegation zone and five points clear of the trapdoor, albeit having a played a game more than their rivals.

“Si se puede! Si se puede!” The chant again rang around a vibrant Vallecas on Wednesday night as Rayo welcomed Osasuna for a proverbial ‘six-pointer’. The Basque club played seemingly with a point firmly at the heart of their team talk, with plenty of men behind the ball and, for the most part, a lack of desire to get forward and go for a crucial win themselves. Rayo had to be patient and their patience paid off. With two minutes to go Abella Damia pulled the shirt of Jose Fernandez and the Rayo man went down inside the penalty area. It was soft, but by the letter of the law the referee got it right - penalty.

“Si se puede!” Larrivey, the man who got that vital goal against Valencia earlier in the month, heard it ringing in his ears as he stepped up for the crucial spot-kick. It inspired him. A cool finish into the bottom corner sent Vallecas crazy and gave Rayo another big three points in their battle for survival. It inflicted a fifth straight loss on Osasuna and should make that belief even stronger within the squad for the remaining eight league matches of the season. Eight cup finals.

Belief has been a key word at Rayo. In manager Paco Jemez, the club has a manager that believes in playing the ‘right way’ and will not change his methods no matter what the situation. At one point it seemed as though the lack of a ‘Plan B’, and a law set-in-stone not to play the long ball, even when the long ball looks the best option, could cost Los Vallecanos. Some doubted the likeable Jemez but plenty stuck by him, too. They needed to. Most of all the players stuck by him and the rewards, at last, are coming.

Rayo were hit for six at Barcelona in mid-February, conceded five at home against Villarreal and away at Malaga, let four goals slip against Barca at home, Sevilla away, Espanyol at home and Atletico Madrid at home. With 63 goals against they currently have the second-worst defensive record in Europe’s top-five leagues. Only the Premier League’s basement side Fulham have conceded more with 70. Jemez’s side have conceded five more than La Liga’s bottom club Betis and three times as many as leaders Atleti.

That defence has tightened up with just five goals conceded in their last five matches and only one at home, with two clean sheets helping them to nine points from nine at a home ground they’ll hope to make a fortress between now and the end of the season to boost their survival bid. It is a defence that, on paper, should be doing as well as it has been in recent weeks. In Alex Galvez Rayo has a defender who has caught the attention of Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, while defensive midfielder Saul Niguez, on-loan from neighbours Atleti, has been scouted by Liverpool amongst others.

Jemez’s loan captures, especially in the winter transfer window, have complemented his ideas perfectly, too. Razvan Rat couldn’t get a game under Sam Allardyce at West Ham United but the Romanian international has been somewhat of a revelation at left-back, while Ruben Rochina has also arrived from Blackburn Rovers to add more options in attack. They have been the perfect acquisitions and although they’ve taken time to gel with their new teammates they could help guide Rayo to safety.

This is a squad built without spending a penny. It’s a squad much-changed from last season such is Rayo’s relative success. Whenever they do well the vultures circle around their best players and snap them up, leaving Jemez to rebuild year after year - there is no such thing as long-term at Rayo Vallecano. Not a penny spent and the lowest budget in La Liga by a distance. Just €7.5 million is spent on player wages compared to the next lowest of €12 million at newly-promoted Elche. Top-spenders Real Madrid fork out €515 million with Barca not far behind on €509.

Despite that margin Rayo gave their more illustrious Madrid neighbours a real scare at Vallecas earlier in the season. Carlo Ancelotti’s men were in cruise control at 3-0 to the good but a brace of penalties got Rayo back in it and they missed a host of good chances to take a memorable point from the contest. A difference of over €500 million in squads yet only a matter of inches and a lick of paint away from matching Madrid stride-for-stride such has been the work of Jemez and his coaching staff.

The cash flow also means Rayo’s ‘Bukaneros’ and the regular 10,000 supporters inside Vallecas really do act as a ‘12th man’. Such is the close-knit nature of the club, between the players and fans at least, that the players come back out of the tunnel post-victory to celebrate with the supporters. This isn’t celebration of promotion or a cup triumph, it’s a celebration of three points and it’s become a common occurrence this month. The fans continue on the main street directly outside the stadium, embracing each other. Success is relative.

The contrasting state of football in Spain’s capital will be in the spotlight this weekend when Rayo and their band of travelling supporters will make the short trip to the Bernabeu to take on a Madrid side that will be hurting from back-to-back defeats that have left their title hopes in tatters. It’s never an ideal time to travel to the Bernabeu but with Los Blancos a wounded animal Rayo will very much up against not only avoiding defeat by avoiding defeat by a heavy margin. 

Few Vallecanos will expect anything from the match but their remaining fixtures for the run-in are favourable. Rayo welcome a Betis side that could already be relegated by the time they visit Vallecas and also host Celta Vigo and Getafe, who occupy one of the relegation places. That Madrid derby comes on the last day of the season and while eyes may be on the top end of the table when current leaders Atletico visit second-placed Barcelona, the battle at the bottom end could be just as entertaining.

Rayo may well be on the end of one of their biggest defeats of the season at the Bernabeu on Saturday night but that won’t bother the travelling supporters too much. “Si se puede!” will be heard from high up in the top tier of the stadium’s north stand and it’ll be a chant that will continue to ring until the end of the season. La Liga would be a poorer place without Rayo but Jemez, his players and the club’s loyal fans are helping to ensure that scenario is more unlikely by the week.

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