Something very strange is happening in Spanish football - Rayo Vallecano are in fashion.
The team that not long ago were more famous for their Ultras have captured the hearts of Spain with their bold, attractive brand of football.
And the expansive game Paco Jémez’s side play is no longer seen as naive, but one that bears results, after Friday night’s 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao in San Mames took them to sixth in the League table, level on points with the Champions League positions. It was their fourth straight win in the League, making them only the fifth team in Spain’s top flight to pull off such a feat this season, along with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Malaga.
The win in Bilbao was huge in its significance, but the showpiece performance came against Getafe the previous Monday, when Rayo destroyed Luis Garcia’s side with an explosive opening half hour of attacking football that even Barcelona fans would have been proud of.
The club even found themselves the subject of an editorial in AS – nearly always focused on Real Madrid – and were referred to as “the Barcelona of the humble man”.
The performances of two players in particular stood out against Getafe - Lass Bangoura and Chori Dominguez.
The Argentine arrived last summer overweight and slow but orchestrated the play that night, while Lass, who had become something of a running joke to Rayo fans, was an even greater surprise. His goal was reminiscent of an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo but he also demonstrated an understanding with fellow forwards Leo Baptistao and Piti. He followed the performance up with another goal against Athletic, exhibiting his hallmark blistering pace but also a fine first touch to bring Roberto Trashorras’s lofting pass under control.
Less of a surprise has been the form of Piti, one of the few top performers at Rayo last season to remain at the club. He has been at the club since the dark days of Segunda B in 2008 and is now enjoying the good times. The 31-year-old has scored eight goals, more than Michu had at this stage of last season, and ones of real quality too, such as his superbly taken volley against Getafe and his perfectly struck free-kick versus Levante in December.
Central midfielders Javi Fuego and Trashorras, meanwhile, have been just as crucial to the forwards, with the former providing energy in the middle and the latter creativity.
But even more important than the players has been Coach Paco Jemez, who has insisted on his team playing football the way he wants. Before Rayo hosted Barcelona in October, Jemez said he would feel ‘embarassed’ to play as defensively as Celtic had done against the Catalans the previous week, but then saw his side lose 5-0. It was not Rayo’s only thrashing of the season, with Real Valladolid and Real Sociedad beating them 6-1 and 4-0 respectively.
But Jemez stuck to his philosophy and continued to encourage his team to play a short passing game as well as prioritising pressing. He has also proved to be diverse in his ideas, binning the ill-fated back three he experimented with at the start of the season.
The most impressive thing about Jemez, however, is that he has made Rayo play so well with a budget of just €7 million, the lowest in the League. It was a constraint he also had at previous club Cordoba, with whom he nearly won promotion last season.
“I have years of experience with teams with small budgets and we’ve managed to go far,” explained Jemez after the win over Getafe.
“A budget helps but it is not everything. Less able teams, with enough ambition and bravery, can achieve great things.”
Rayo have certainly achieved great things this season – they have recorded their best ever first half of a season in the top flight, and as well as being strong at home have pulled off impressive away victories – at Betis, Malaga, Valencia and now the famous San Mames.
Of all the Press reports from the win over Athletic, it was hard to top the words of fan site Rayo Herald, who were keen to remind readers of a contrasting day in the Basque country back in 2007, when they lost to Eibar in the Segunda B play-off final.
They wrote, “2029 days ago, and just 50km from San Mames, the world came tumbling down on the supporters of Rayo Vallecano. Today they are crying with happiness.”