Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez faces a must-win match on Sunday afternoon when struggling Rayo Vallecano visit the Santiago Bernabeu. On paper, Los Blancos should not lose but the final match before Christmas is also somewhat of a no-win for the under-fire Spanish coach.
Madrid have seen off their city neighbours 5-1 and 5-0 respectively in their last two league meetings on home soil and if another comfortable win is not forthcoming the knives will be out for a coach seemingly on the brink.
Defeat against Villarreal last time out was not only Madrid's third defeat in five La Liga matches but it also saw Benitez and his men miss out on the chance of closing the gap on leaders Barcelona after the Catalans dropped points with a shock 1-1 draw against Deportivo at home. It was a good weekend for Atletico, who can now move top this week if they pick up at least a point at lowly Malaga.
The problems won't go away for Benitez. Madrid looked to have got their act together somewhat when they followed up a 4-1 win against Getafe with a thumping 8-0 success against Malmo in the Champions League. The problem has not been seeing off the lower teams this term, the problem has been competing with the top teams. Madrid have taken a point from a possible 12 against Barcelona, Atletico, Sevilla and Villarreal this term.
Rayo are one of the teams Madrid are expected to roll over this season, especially on home soil. While Malaga came and carried out a gameplan that saw them take away a shock point from the Bernabeu, Paco Jemez will not change his attacking methods for the trip across town. Rayo will try to plan expansive, attacking football and are expected to come well unstuck again.
Madrid have the rare opportunity of fielding the ‘BBC' in attack after Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale have both missed chunks of the season through injury. The trio mis-fired at Villarreal last weekend and will want to boost confidence with a convincing performance against one of the leakiest defences in the division. All three netted in the same fixture last season and they will be keen to find the back of the net again on Sunday.
Not only does Madrid's attack need to shine, Benitez's trusted back four needs to regain the form that set them apart at the start of the campaign. Clean sheets and broken records have been met with a messy defence in recent weeks with only two clean sheets - in the thumping of Malmo and 2-0 win at Eibar - forthcoming. That defence was the base of Benitez's system and back-to-back home matches, against Rayo first and then Real Sociedad, offers the opportunity of a couple of solid results ahead of the bigger clash at Valencia.
Los Blancos went on the charm offensive in the build-up to the match with the festive Christmas dinner alongside their basketball counterparts, who just secured their place in the next round of the Euroleague, followed by the traditional gift-bearing hospital visits. Los Blancos' players and coaching staff are also set to showcase their ‘Merry Christmas' messages next week so a convincing win against the side from Vallecas this weekend is much-needed.
Real Madrid Projected XI: Keylor Navas, Danilo, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos, Modric, James, Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale.
Rayo Vallecano Projected XI: Yoel, Tito, Amaya, Castro, Nacho, Baena, Trashorras, Lass, Jozabed, Bebe, Guerra.