Rayo Vallecano's principled risk-takers finally come good | Sid Lowe

Having dominated possession but lost every match the pressure was on Rayo to play safe. They didn't. But this time they won

Five years later, FC Barcelona lost the ball. Not since 7 May 2008 had they finished a match with less than 50% of it. But then, 316 games later, they travelled to Vallecas. And there, on 21 September 2013, out to the east of Madrid, deep in the barrio, where the smell of special cigarettes wafts through the stands, Barcelona's most treasured possession was stolen: possession itself. Nine tenths of their law. "I get the ball, I pass the ball, I get the ball, I pass the ball"? No, I get the ball and I pass the ball. It finished with Rayo Vallecano beating Barcelona 51%-49%. It also finished with Barcelona beating Rayo Vallecano 4-0.

For Rayo, it was becoming a worryingly trend. That was week five. Against Atlético Madrid in week two, against Levante in week three and against Málaga in week four Rayo had enjoyed more possession; against Sevilla in week six and Valencia in week seven they would too. Six matches, six defeats, aggregate score: 2-21. They had conceded more than any top-flight team in any of Europe's major leagues.

Some called them naive; their coach, Paco Jémez, called them suicidal. "We're doing more damage to ourselves than anyone else could ever do to us," he said with a sigh after his side lost 4-1 at Sevilla. "We're the ones slitting our own wrists every day. It's enough just for our opponents to wait for us [to kill ourselves]."

"It's the same old story," said the midfielder Adrián. "We have to do something about it because we can't go on like this."

By Saturday morning, the pressure was really on. Real Sociedad were coming, struggling now but arguably the best side in Spain during the second half of last season, and Rayo were bottom: they'd beaten Elche on the opening day but not won since. Six successive defeats had left them on three points, with the worst defence and the worst attack in the league. There were tensions too, or so it seemed. "Sometimes players push you, they try you," Jémez said. "They want to show that theirs is the biggest around, that they have a big one. Well, I can tell you that I have the biggest one of all."

He has the balls too. In the aftermath of week five, a debate had raged: did the style need changing? But it was Barcelona they were talking about, not Rayo. Partly because "they" hardly ever talk about Rayo; partly because down in Vallecas, Jémez was not for turning. Rayo would keep attacking, they would push high, they would keep the ball, bringing it out from the back, time after time, risk after risk. They would play. "It's not that we have to change what we do, it's that we have to do what we do better," he had insisted. On Saturday night he was even direct. Did you ever doubt that the style was right? "Never. I never have and I never will. I believe in what we do. If you bring me in as coach, you know what you're getting."

They certainly do. And there was logic to Jémez's position. Last season suggested that it could work. Back then Rayo conceded four at Atlético, three at Espanyol, four at Real Sociedad, and six at Valladolid. Plus, five at home against Barcelona – one more than this season. And all of that within the first 12 weeks. In week nine, they were 15th but by the end of the campaign had it not been for their financial problems they would have qualified for Europe and they did it playing great football. This summer the overhaul was again huge: they brought 12 players in while 11 left, including their three highest scorers: Piti, Baptistão and Delibasic. Jordi Amat went to Swansea and Javi Fuego to Valencia. Of their entire squad, only one cost any money. Like last season, it was bound to take time. The poorest side in the league could hardly expect a season without struggle.

They'd not exactly had it easy either: Atlético, Málaga, Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia. An open attacking style might not work against them but they're not exactly Rayo's league and against other sides, who knows? Maybe it would work again. If you're not going to win the league you might as well enjoy your games. Better to live dangerously than to not live at all; better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. And where's the guarantee in sitting deep and shutting up? It's not like they'd played badly either. There were two red cards against Sevilla: they conceded four but for much of the game they'd been the better side. After the game against Valencia, Jémez claimed: "We've done more good things than bad." And against Barcelona, Víctor Valdés saved a penalty at 0-1. By the end, Rayo had taken 12 shots. "The good news is that we've identified the problem," the coach claimed. Specifics, not style, were the problem.

But still. The pressure was on. Proper pressure. Forget the meat-headed centre-back booting the scurrying striker into the air. That's not brave; this is brave. "There's tension and nerves," Jémez admitted, "especially when you play like we do. You can feel it in the stands and that affects you; it reaches the players and makes it harder to play. But what makes us great is our bravery. I believe in what we do and so do they."

Belief is ephemeral, shakeable. This weekend it came flooding back; this weekend fortune favoured them. With two minutes to go on Saturday night, Rayo had had 61% of the possession. They had hit the post twice. But they had also conceded 18 shots. The Sociedad striker Imanol Agirretxe had missed a sitter and hearts had again been in mouths, the risk of self-harm forever lingering. With every ball out from the back, with every goal-kick taken short, with every risky pass, with every bobble, every time the ball popped up on a ropey surface and they struggled to get it back down again, with every refusal to simply get rid of the bloody thing, with every time the full-backs were more wingers than defenders …

And then it happened: in the 88th minute with Rayo still heading up the pitch, the substitute Jonathan Viera, precisely the player Jémez had in mind when he talked about whose penis was biggest, dashed into the area and was brought down by a ridiculously daft challenge by Claudio Bravo, tumbling off the pitch and disappearing under a pile of celebrating ballboys. The referee pointed, Viera re-emerged, scored from the spot, and Europe boomed out: The Final Countdown. Rayo had won at last; off the bottom of the table, where they were replaced by Almería, whom they face next weekend. Down the tunnel they went, punching the air and throwing shirts into the crowd, noisy as ever but happy now too. Three minutes later they were back out again by popular demand.

"The result wasn't fair," said Real Sociedad's manager, Jogoba Arraste.

"Hopefully this will give us the tranquillity we need," said Jémez. "We've beaten Real Sociedad: not some bunch of mates thrown together but a Champions League team. And we were faithful to the way we play. People talk about play well or win. Well, I want to do both. The only reality is results but I'm not interested in one without the other. I'm not interested in just winning any old way: satisfaction comes with wins like this. This is what we wanted. This is the way we are. This is what are."

Results and talking points

• The league was slipping away from Real Madrid. 1-0 and then 2-1 down, the clock showed 89 minutes when Álvaro Morata, on for Karim Benzema, scored the equaliser. Still, it was not much use: seven points is some gap in a league where the champions have dropped 14 all season for the past two seasons. But then in the 93rd minute, with Levante defending so deep they might as well have been in the stands behind the goal, another one arrived. Cristiano Ronaldo's shot skidded off Juanfran's backside and in via the post. Ronaldo ripped off his shirt and ran to one touchline to celebrate. Marcelo stuck out his tongue and ran to the other one. AS called him "Superman". Real Madrid were suddenly back to five points behind and back in the title race. But they are not playing well and they are living very dangerously: lucky to win in Elche, lucky to draw in Villarreal and on the edge here, they could easily be 10 points behind already.

• Alexis Sánchez scored a belter but it was Neymar who really shone for Barcelona in a 4-1 win against Valladolid, playing in the injured Leo Messi's central attacking position. Neymar was superb: skilful, clever, creative … he also should have had one, maybe even two, penalties. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that there was something of the boy who cried wolf about it, or maybe he's a dog with a bad name, like Spot or Rex or something. It seems that maybe referees simply don't trust him and it has sparked a debate about him being a diver. Which, here at least, is a bit of a daft one because – and Celtic fans may want to look away now -- he has barely dived at all in Spain. Plenty of others, on the other hand, have.

BOOM! You talk about Zidane as if he was Pedro León. The goal of the season was scored by Getafe's Pedro León, who scored a 50-yard free kick against Betis. And it was entirely deliberate too. He then scored a second … before going off injured after just over half an hour. Getafe are, amazingly, fifth after three wins in a row. (Incidentally, this week their president, Ángel Torres, announced that he wants to build a new stadium with a capacity for 32,000. See if you can spot the tiny flaw in that plan.)

• Diego Simeone said it was the probably the best his team has played, although he resisted suggestions that it had been "the milk". That's the business, the dog's goolies to you and me. For 70 minutes, Atlético Madrid were sensational against Celta. It finished only 2-1 (and Nolito's goal for Celta was beautifully taken) but it could have been seven or eight. Juanfran, in particular, was superb. By half-time, Yoel had already made eight saves, including a Diego Costa penalty and David Villa's follow-up. Costa was mighty annoyed, shouting at himself and kicking the post, but he recovered to score two more goals, taking him to 10 for the season in just eight games, two ahead of Messi, three ahead of Ronaldo. He has scored in every league game so far this season too. All that in the week that Spain tried to get him signed up for La selección. Costa's paperwork didn't happen in time, while Villa pulled up injured. So Vicente del Bosque, at last, called up Michu instead.

• Oh, Almería! It happened again: another lovely assist from Suso, another late, late defeat. Rakitic scored for Sevilla in the 92nd minute, to deny them a draw at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Almería are bottom on three points. If every league game had finished in the 80th minute they'd be sixth, a single point off the Champions League.

• And this week's "woof!" is for Villarreal. Brilliant again, they're fourth.

Results: Villarreal 3-0 Granada, Málaga 0-1 Osasuna, Elche 2-1 Espanyol, Rayo 1-0 Real Sociedad, Levante 2-3 Real Madrid, Barcelona 4-1 Valladolid, Atlético 2-1 Celta, Sevilla 2-1 Almería, Getafe 3-1 Betis, Athletic 1-1 Valencia.

La Liga table


Sid Lowe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rayo Vallecano's all-or-nothing approach is finally coming good | Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe: Paco Jémez, Rayo's coach, has earned plaudits for telling his lowly team to attack. But it's only now that the approach is starting to work

Sid Lowe

17, Mar, 2014 @2:34 PM

Article image
Rayo Vallecano's barrio boys bounce to a different beat in Real defeat | Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe: Madrid's third team waited 3,396 days to host Real and though they lost, the loud and alternative crowd won much respect

Sid Lowe

27, Feb, 2012 @1:46 PM

Article image
Rayo Vallecano aim for Europe while bemoaning manic Mondays | Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe: With a squad in constant flux, doubts about their ground and bizarre kick-off times, it's a wonder Rayo are playing so well

Sid Lowe

14, Jan, 2013 @2:37 PM

Article image
Sandoval's Rayo Vallecano strike against Osasuna in more ways than one Sid Lowe

Sid Lowe: Remarkable scenes as impoverished Rayo Vallecano hit six to ensure top-flight safety while their coach, José Ramón Sandoval, goes into dispute with the club's owners

Sid Lowe

09, Apr, 2012 @10:57 AM

Article image
Huesca and Rayo drag each other towards hell in theatre of the absurd | Sid Lowe
A frantic Russian roulette-style finale created madcap drama but the worst possible result for the relegation rivals

Sid Lowe

22, Apr, 2019 @3:05 PM

Article image
Real Madrid and Rayo Vallecano: a tale of two ends of the same city | Sid Lowe
Sid Lowe: While José Mourinho's team await their fiesta, Rayo's 7-0 thrashing at home by Barcelona leaves them clinging on in La Liga

Sid Lowe

30, Apr, 2012 @1:12 PM

Article image
Rayo Vallecano 1-5 Barcelona: La Liga – as it happened
Minute-by-minute report: Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick and Rayo Vallecano had two players sent off as Barcelona extended their unbeaten run to a Spanish-record 35

Simon Burnton

03, Mar, 2016 @9:55 PM

Article image
Rayo Vallecano v Real Madrid: La Liga – live! | Jacob Steinberg
Minute-by-minute report: Real Madrid remain four points behind Barcelona thanks to goals in the second half from Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez

Jacob Steinberg

08, Apr, 2015 @9:51 PM

Article image
Rayo Vallecano match abandoned after ‘Nazi’ chants; Real Madrid draw
In Spain the second-division match between Rayo Vallecano and Albacete was abandoned at half-time after chants were heard accusing the Albacete forward Roman Zozulya of being a Nazi

Guardian sport and agencies

15, Dec, 2019 @10:53 PM

Article image
Barcelona 6-1 Rayo Vallecano: La Liga – as it happened
Barcelona went to the top of La Liga after a Leo Messi hat-trick and two from Luis Suarez gave them a 6-1 win over Rayo Vallecano, in a game with two red cards

Nick Miller

08, Mar, 2015 @12:53 PM