MADRID — Rayo Vallecano have made a mockery of their financial woes and played some of the best football in La Liga this season, to climb to sixth place, and they can test their progress when they take on wealthy city rivals Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Sunday.
A deserved 2-1 win at home to second-placed Atletico Madrid last weekend prompted talk of a realistic chance of a place in Europe next term and enhanced Rayo’s reputation as one of Spain’s "giant killers".
The modest club, who are in administration and whose 15,000-seater stadium has only three stands, with one end used for advertising, are transformed from the side that were mired in the third tier of Spanish football in 2004-08.
They narrowly avoided relegation last season after coming up from the second division but, under the guidance of coach Paco Jemez and fired by the goals of captain Medina Piti and fellow forward Leo Baptistao, they have become a genuine force, with wins at Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Malaga.
"We are now in a situation where we only have to look forward," Jemez told a news conference this week. "We are not going to be satisfied with what we have done and we want to continue making history," he said. "We have to enjoy everything we are doing."
They face a monumental task at champions Real, who are undefeated at the Bernabeu in all competitions this season but have suffered erratic form away from home and are four points behind Atletico and 16 behind leaders Barcelona.
Jemez said Rayo would not be changing their free-flowing playing style, which has drawn comparisons with Barca, and would be going out to enjoy themselves on Sunday.
"We don’t need to be scared in any way, we just have to show what we have been showing up to now," he said.
"We are going to go there without any kind of complex with a lot of desire to enjoy ourselves and play a good match."
Barca have had a restful week with their Champions League last 16 first leg at Serie A side AC Milan not until next Wednesday and can go 15 points clear of Atletico with a win at 14th-placed Granada tomorrow. Forward David Villa is unavailable after failing to recover from kidney stones, the club said yesterday.
Atletico have won all 12 home matches this term but were beaten in their past two away fixtures and play at mid-table Real Valladolid on Sunday.
Real’s 1-1 home draw against Manchester United on Wednesday leaves their Champions League last 16 tie finely balanced and the second leg on March 5 will come at the end of a week that could make or break the La Liga club’s season.
Jose Mourinho’s side have virtually given up hope of defending their league title after an erratic campaign, leaving their quest for a 10th European crown that has eluded them since 2002 as the overwhelming priority. They are still alive in the King’s Cup and play at Barcelona in the second leg of their semifinal on February 26 with their rivals also tied at 1-1 after last month’s first leg in Madrid.
Four days later, they host Barca at the Bernabeu, this time in the league, and then have only three days before they take on United with a place in the quarterfinals of Europe’s elite club competition at stake.
There has been widespread speculation that Mourinho will move on at the end of the season whether Real win the Champions League or not, but elimination at the hands of United and his old rival Alex Ferguson as well as a Cup reverse to Barca could hasten the Portuguese’s exit.
"I am not feeling any pressure," Mourinho said at a news conference after Wednesday’s showdown at the Bernabeu.
"I do serious work, I give my all and I go home satisfied with what I have done and with my head held high."