Real Madrid will travel the ungodly distance of twenty minutes south to face cross-town "rivals" on Sunday (16:00 CET, 10:00 AM EST), the resurgent Rayo Vallecano. Rayo, based in the working-class suburb of Vallecas, has a famously passionate fan base that packs their admittedly small stadium and makes their games incredibly noisy affairs; there is little doubt that a good deal of Real Madrid fans will make the short trek to the south to watch their side play in Vallecas as well, though this might not totally alleviate the pressure of such a combustible stadium. Real Madrid has a pretty good historical balance against Rayo in Vallecas--eight wins, three losses and a draw--but this doesn't do justice to the intensity of the matches. While the terrain might not be quite as uncomfortable for Madrid as, say, Pamplona in January, the atmosphere will certainly be memorable.
So, what can we expect from these two sides on Sunday? Read on.Rayo's rise towards the top of the table in Spain this season is one of the most underrated stories of the year. This is a club that had been languishing in the middle-top of Segunda for the past few seasons, never seeming to quite have enough to get over the hump and back to Primera; then, last season, they made a late-season charge, and won promotion towards the end of the season. This year, they're back in Primera with a force, riding the creative power of young, tall (he's 1'91m) CAM Michu, and the veteran leadership of Raul Tamudo, the only Real Madrid icon to have never played on Real Madrid.
Currently, Rayo is sitting in eighth place in la Liga, just a point behind Espanyol and Atlético Madrid for the last European spot, and a comfortable eight points above relegation (yes, you read that right: the difference between sixth place and Europe in Spain, and relegation is nine effing points). They're leading traditional powerhouses like Sevilla, Villarreal and Osasuna relatively comfortably, and have been in sublime form recently--they've won their past three games, and have taken 10 points out of a total of 12 available in their last four. Basically, they're doing what Levante managed to do for half the season, but are actually sustaining their success.
Plus, Rayo is the best team in all of Europe at intercepting balls in play: they lead (well, at least they did in January) every club from every European country in interceptions per game, despite surrendering 12 shots per game. Their defense, while semi-porous, isn't nearly as bad as most of la Liga--have you even tried to watch Málaga?--but that might be more indicative of la Liga's failings than Rayo's strengths.
Still, they're a strong side that shouldn't be taken lightly, despite their status as a just-ascended ex-Segunda side.
So how can Madrid attack them? Well, they're not great against the ball in the air: they win less than half of all their aerial duels, and they don't have a particularly tall defense and midfield. They try to play possession football, though with a more forward-looking bent (like Madrid), so los blancos should be able to pull off some trademark lethal counter-attacks. Rayo also tend to gear their play through Diego Costa and Michu, so some minimal positional adjustments should allow Madrid to control their offensive pace.
The biggest test for José Mourinho's boys heading into the match will be trying to figure out which combination of players to start, considering the recent injuries of stalwarts Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria. Should Mourinho favor a physical approach, he would probably look to Sami Khedira to pair with Xabi Alonso in the midfield, while inserting José Maria Callejón alongside Mesut Özil and Cristiano Ronaldo in the midfield, with Gonzalo Higuaín supplanting the injured Benzema at the top of the attacking pyramid. If, on the other hand, Mourinho chooses to go with a finesse, passing approach, he'll probably look to the touch of Esteban Granero in the midfield pivot with Alonso, and Kaká over Callejón in the center of the midfield. And, of course, these are only two of a number of different choices Mourinho has regarding positional alignments--we'll break it down for you during and after the match.
My opinion is that Rayo are particularly vulnerable to speed and finesse, so I'd probably go to war with some combination of physicality and finesse--I'd probably start Khedira next to Alonso in the midfield pivot to put a check on Michu's physicality, but insert Kaká into the attacking midfield trident to try to control possession and neutralize Rayo's zonal defensive strategies.
But that's only my opinion! Weigh in in the comments, and tell me what I missed, where I went wrong, or how smart I am. Plus, you can always "like" us on Facebook, tweet us @ManagingMadrid, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes for up-to-the-minute Managing Madrid news and updates. Hala Madrid!