Rayo Vallecano make the short trip to the Bernabeu this weekend, coming off an impressive 2-1 home victory over Atletico Madrid, while Los Blancos will be looking to rebound quickly from an emotional European encounter with Manchester United as they head into the definitive part of their season.
This fixture has the potential to be an entertaining, anarchic affair. Rayo are currently in sixth place in the league table (only 9 points behind Madrid with an impressive 37), primarily on the strength of their home form, though, winning only 4 times away from the Estadio Teresa Rivero. Interestingly, nearly all of Rayo's matches have come to a definitive conclusion this season, as they've drawn only once through the first 23 weeks of La Liga.
Perhaps the side's bold approach and willingness to take chances can best summed up by manager Paco Jemez's belief that "if you're going to lose by two, what difference does it make if you lose by four?"
That quote was pulled from a fascinating piece that Sid Lowe wrote for the Guardian last month, detailing Rayo's surprising and resilient performance this season. The squad has survived everything from the loss of Michu (for a ludicrous 2 million Euros), to a bizarre, inconsistent and illogical fixture list that through January had seen them endure at least one "run of Thursday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Monday" matches, according to Lowe. Where they now stand in the table becomes even more impressive when things like this are factored in.
Rayo started fast against the suddenly struggling Atleti, dramatically outplaying their crosstown rivals in the opening half, using their width to barrage Atletico with crosses, while still defending energetically and cohesively as a unit to stifle Falcao and co. Lass Bangoura notched a goal against Atletico, his third in six matches. It was also his cross that Leo Baptistao latched onto to notch the decisive goal, securing all three points. That strike was Baptistao's 7th of the campaign and he is second on the team behind Piti with 10.
Rayo certainly have attacking options and they often focus their attacks down the right side of the pitch. Their tendency to aggressively utilize their width is borne out time and again upon closer examination of their matches this season. They also do not hesitate to spray long balls into the box, causing confusion (as they did against Atletico) that their opportunistic forwards convert into goals. Whomever Jose Mourinho selects in goal and along the backline will have to be alert and aggressive themselves to contest the crosses likely to be launched towards goal.
Jemez, as Lowe noted:
"pushes his team high up the pitch, encouraging his full-backs to become midfielders. Quite literally, at times: they have occasionally lined up with three at the back, particularly early in the season."
This is one reason Rayo do not draw much and this approach certainly plays into the strengths of a counterattacking side of Real Madrid's caliber. This is why the match promises to be relatively wide-open.
La Liga has, in a sense, almost become a laboratory for Mourinho and I'd expect a decent amount of squad rotation, with Kaka, Marcelo, Adan and Callejon likely to get starts.
Real Madrid have won their last 6 matches against Rayo in all competitions. That streak may continue,but it won't be easy.
What are your thoughts?