If Saturday’s match between Rayo Vallecano and Barcelona had to be given a title, it would be dubbed ‘the game with no defence’.
Due to injuries to Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and a suspension for Javier Mascherano, Tito Vilanova's side will have to make do with the inexperienced Marc Bartra alongside either Alex Song or Sergio Busquets, neither of whom are defenders. Rayo’s situation is different but no less preferable. With the exception of the suspended Mikel Labaka, Paco Jemez has all his defenders available. The problem is, none of them can defend.
‘La franjirroja’ have conceded 17 goals in 2012-13 – 16 in their last five matches – and have been the victims of the heaviest defeat of the season so far, a 6-1 drubbing to that attacking powerhouse, Real Valladolid. Only Deportivo have shipped more goals this term than Rayo, and the Galicians have already played both Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Rayo go into Saturday's game on the back of a defeat to Espanyol, who until then had not beaten anyone, and they now face Barca, who have won every game they have played, bar one, and scored the most goals in the League with 24.
Rayo fans will understandably be fearing the worst when Leo Messi and company take to the Vallecas field on Saturday, having also not forgotten the 0-7 defeat in the same fixture last season.
It all started so well for Rayo’s back-line, which conceded just one goal in the first three League games. Against Real Betis and Sevilla, Jemez boldly played with only three defenders in Tito, Jordi Amat and Jose Manuel Casado, with holding midfielder Javi Fuego filling in as a makeshift centre-back when the opposition attacked. The plan worked well enough against Betis as Rayo won 2-1 but they were fortunate to escape with a 0-0 draw against Sevilla, who squandered two penalties and missed all of their 18 shots on goal.
Jemez mistakenly kept the back three for the short trip to the Vicente Calderon and saw his team ripped apart by a fearsome Atletico Madrid, who exploited the narrow defence and scored three of their four goals by attacking down the roomy flanks and cutting the ball back to free men in the box.
Rayo had four defenders on the pitch against Real Madrid and their 0-2 defeat was not humiliating, but Karim Benzema’s opening goal was unforgivable from a defensive standpoint, as the Frenchman was not picked up by centre-halves Jordi Amat and Labaka as he hovered around the six yard box before calmly slotting in Angel Di Maria’s cross.
Jemez bizarrely reverted to the back three against Valladolid and watched his side’s narrow and timid defence crumble, conceding four goals in 27 minutes.
Despite an improved performance in the 2-1 win over Deportivo, the defensive horror show returned against Espanyol, with centre-backs Galvez and Labaka out of position for Joan Verdu’s first goal and then failing to pick up Christian Stuani, who headed in the winner in stoppage time.
Rayo’s defence last season was hardly watertight, but at this stage had conceded six goals fewer than the current bunch. Alejandro Arribas was the leader at the back before he joined Osasuna in the summer, and had two separate partners – Jordi Figueras until he joined Club Bruges in January, and then Jorge Pulido, who as drafted in on loan from Atletico Madrid for six months.
Rayo’s precarious finances mean they have to make do with loans or acquire players on free transfers, i.e the ones no other clubs want. The 32-year-old Labaka falls into the latter category while Amat – on loan from Espanyol – is in the former. The Catalan has shown promise but is still just 20 and is short on experience. The same is true of Galvez, who had only played half a season in the top flight with Sporting Gijon until he joined Rayo in the summer. None of these three have been adequate replacements for Arribas, Figueras or Pulido, and Jemez’s persistence with the back three has prevented a steady centre-back partnership from forming.
Jemez said he would be too ashamed to try and play similar tactics to what Celtic tried against Barcelona last Tuesday in the Champions League, but emphasised that his team ‘must be focused in defence and confident and brave in attack’.
Jemez can belittle Neil Lennon's side all he likes, but their strategy at least gave them a chance of getting something from the game, something Rayo will not manage unless they can tighten up at the back.