Andoni Iraola’s side have risen above the noise to create their own, with a better home record than any top European club
Last modified on Mon 20 Dec 2021 17.37 GMT
We’re leavin’ together
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back
To earth, who can tell?
Maybe. Probably, in fact. Just not now, not yet. They’re enjoying this ride much too much. After every goal Rayo Vallecano score down in the Independent People’s Republic of Vallekas, someone presses play, the opening bars of The Final Countdown boom across the three sides of the ground, and everyone bounces about, crumbling stands wobbling again as they scat along and swirl their scarves, da-da da daa, da da da-da daa doing the rounds. They’ve been doing it for years, but never as often as they are these days. And if that used to be as close as they were ever going to get to Europe, it’s not any more.
Because Rayo Vallecano don’t just leave 2021 and go into 2022 in a European place; they do so in a Champions League place. Let’s say that again, slowly: as it stands Rayo Vallecano are in the Champions League. They might as well be headin’ to bloody Venus, it’s no more unlikely. It’s a minor miracle the tape player still works – not much else does round here – and a major miracle the team are where they are. Rayo have played in Europe only once, in 2000-2001, and that was via the fair-play league. They had finished ninth in La Liga the season before, their highest ever position. Thirteen years later, they were eighth. Last season they were sixth.
In the second division.
But it’s not just that, and this is not just promoted club overachieves. It is not even promoted club that sneaked up via the play-offs overachieves. It is everything. One former coach described Rayo as the last of the barrio teams, not just in their neighbourhood but of their neighbourhood. They are also a mess. In the words of captain Óscar Trejo – a man who insists: “If I was a fan, I would shout and swear because it’s the only way to open eyes and ‘heat’ ears” – this is a place where it’s “problem after problem”. The smallest club in primera, Rayo have no money, a ground that is literally falling apart, no online ticket sales, a youth teamer with no contract sleeping on the floor, a women’s team without a doctor, opposition medics treating their players, and an owner of whom fans now ask just one thing – repeatedly and to his face. To leave.
Somehow the team rises above all that. A side whose normal starting XI only has two players that weren’t there in segunda last season – although one is a tiger – are fourth, a point ahead of champions Atlético. Not long ago, the other regular – full-back Iván Balliu, a former La Masia graduate – joked that they were “direct rivals of Barcelona”, who they currently lead by three places. And when it comes to playing at home, Rayo aren’t just close to Europe now, they’re ahead of Europe. Having collected 25 points from a possible 27, Rayo’s record isn’t just better than Sevilla, Madrid, Barcelona, and Espanyol; it’s better than PSG, Bayern, Dortmund, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Internazionale and everyone else in the top five leagues.
“A few weeks ago, I posted a message saying: ‘Dreaming of the Champions League,’” goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski admitted on Saturday night. “All my teammates were laying into me, saying: ‘Delete that.’ And now we go for Christmas in a Champions League place and I’m laughing at them a bit.” That afternoon, Vallecas had belted out another familiar song from a repertoire wider than anyone else’s, rescued from back beyond 2000. “Next year, Rayo-Liverpool,” it runs, and although tongues were wedged in cheeks it didn’t sound that ridiculous. Except that the whole thing is ridiculous really.
Maybe the crisis at club level actually helps, Trejo suggesting that all the problems “make you feel and defend the shirt”. Balliu talks about a group that eats together and gives each other gifts – “when I went to Catalonia I came back with wine, Isi arrived from Murcia with fruit, Fran García brought cheese from La Mancha”– and insists that the fans who are noisy, loyal and right on top of them are “our strength”. It might also help that Vallecas itself is a bit different, not exactly modern, not exactly comfortable, still the kind of place it is hard to go, the pitch shorter than normal, the surface not ideal.
As for Andoni Iraola, the 39-year-old coach just three years into his career who brought them up from segunda – coach of the year by miles so far – he keeps saying that the fixture list has been “benevolent”, insisting: “I’m convinced that this will turn and in the second half of the season you’ll ask me the opposite.” There’s something in that: away they have won just once – at San Mamés – and the sides Rayo have beaten in Vallecas are those in 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th, plus Espanyol and Barcelona, 10th and seventh respectively. Against Celta, who are 13th, they drew 0-0.
Yet that’s not really it. Nor is this the story of a team that will inevitably fall a long way, all of this quickly forgotten, even though they probably will slip down the table a little. If European places are likely to be denied, that doesn’t make them deluded or any less deserving. For a start, you still have to get those results and with less than half the season gone the team considered a relegation certainty in August have 30 points. “The coach reads games very well,” Balliu says. “Two or three days before he shares his ideas and you get there it’s exactly the same: what he has done deserves a lot of credit.” Then there’s something else less tangible and maybe more important, a reason to want this to last.
Usually when a team comes up from the second division and over performs – at home, on a difficult pitch – it’s all about resisting. Rayo don’t resist: they rip into you. Yes, they are tough at times – Esteban Saveljich has don’t mess with me written all over his face – and, yes, they like a tackle: no team enters more duels. But they are not dirty and they’re definitely not defensive. They are though very direct. They have scored 19 goals at home, joint second with Barcelona and Real Betis behind Sevilla. Only once have they failed to score in their own stadium, and the fact that it ended 0-0 against Celta still doesn’t make any sense; they could have had four or five. Only two teams have taken more shots.
There’s a vertigo about Rayo, something wild and wonderful to watch, the place packed and roaring every game now. They come at you from everywhere and from the start. Look at the minutes in which they scored some of their opening goals at home: 3, 9, 9, 26 (although they had fallen behind that day against Elche), 30, 16, 54. This weekend they scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Alavés inside 26 minutes, hitting the post again soon after. Saturday’s opener was a perfect portrait of their play, two men outnumbering their opponents on the left, an overlapping run beyond the defence, the ball pulled back across the box almost from the byline, Sergi Guardiola arriving to finish first time.
Celta Vigo 3-1 Espanyol, Sevilla 2-1 Atlético Madrid, Barcelona 3-2 Elche, Real Sociedad 1-3 Villarreal, Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Alavés, Real Madrid 0-0 Cádiz, Getafe 1-0 Osasuna, Athletic Bilbao 3-2 Real Betis, Granada 4-1 Real Mallorca
No team has completed more crosses. Only Athletic produce more sprints, Rayo pressing fast in a first wave then racing back into a deep position if that doesn’t work, as relentless as they are rapid. When they set off they stampede, footballers everywhere. Of the five players to have covered most ground in La Liga, three are Rayo’s – full-backs Fran García and Balliu, plus Álvaro García wide. That list tells you something: this is a team that plays with double wingers, flying through on both sides, even if – pleasingly – Rayo Vallecano are particularly happy on the left wing. No one in La Liga has run faster than García, the stats say. On the other side, Isi Palazón has been superb. Off the front, no one has more assists than Trejo.
Organised chaos might be the best description. “That’s a hard thing to achieve,” Iraola admits. “I prefer too much chaos to too much organisation. I prefer us to play at a high pace, even if it means a touch of precipitation, than play at a lower pace and have a bit more control. It suits us.” Breathless and brilliant, it suits everyone else too. “We have to do our bit for the people to enjoy it,” the coach says, and ultimately that is what it’s about: about hope and dreams, the more outrageous and out of this world the better. Football is supposed to be fun and right now there’s nothing in football more fun than a night in Vallecas, where Rayo have taken off.