In-fighting and petty squabbles between the club and its supporters have never been far away at Rayo Vallecano in recent times, and yet whilst this is amid the backdrop of still being in administration, amazingly the Madrid-based outfit are challenging for a top-six spot in La Liga.
Furthermore, they are doing it after seeing the spine of last season’s squad depart the Campo de Futbol de Vallecas, having narrowly avoided relegation to La Segunda in the final minute of the last game against Granada.
Boss Jose Ramon Sandoval subsequently departed and he was followed out of the door by Alejandro Arribas, Jose Movilla, Emiliano Armenteros and Diego Costa among others, the latter returning to Atletico Madrid after his loan spell had yielded an impressive 10 goals in 16 Liga games. However, perhaps the greatest loss was free-scoring midfielder Michu, who joined Michael Laudrup’s Spanish revolution at Premier League Swansea City for what has since proven a cut-price €2m.
Cordoba’s Paco Jemez replaced Sandoval on the bench after taking the Andalusians to the Segunda play- offs, although his appointment was viewed by some fans as a somewhat unexpected choice. Even so, the 42-year-old, who represented Rayo in two spells as a player, has proven a revelation this season with his emphasis on an attacking style of football that has witnessed Los Franjirrojos involved in some thrilling encounters.
Four wins on the spin between mid-December and mid-January, over Valencia, Levante, Getafe and Athletic Bilbao, ensured a best-ever first half to a season, with supporters believing this could really be the year Rayo qualify for European competition on their own merits, after one such foray via the Fair Play League.
Quite how this has been achieved is anybody’s guess, with the club’s notorious Bukaneros fans having fallen out with the board and in particular President Raul Martin Presa, whom they accuse of being manipulated by the Spanish League with regard to kick-off times being moved to the least popular slots.
The group has even gone as far as to boycott some games so that, apart from a block of flats occupying the area behind the goal at one end of the stadium, the opposite end is also devoid of fans. There was even the infamous incident when a game against Real Madrid was postponed due to a power cut at the ground, with investigations later confirming it had been sabotage after wires connecting the electricity supply had been cut.
Added to this is the fact that Rayo are forced to operate on the smallest budget in La Primera at just €7.5m, with Jemez obliged work with loan players and free signings brought in last summer. However, the new- look group has responded admirably to his football philosophy, and scouts from some of Europe’s top clubs can regularly be found in the suburb of Vallecas at home games as they keep tabs on Rayo’s rising stars.
Lynchpin Javi Fuego has been the focus of much interest alongside fellow midfielder and captain Piti, while Chori Dominguez and Lass Bangoura have also attracted the attention of the big boys. Nonetheless, it is young Brazilian striker Leo Baptistao who has exploded on to the scene with greatest effect this campaign, with it being reported the 20-year-old has already agreed terms for a move to cross-city rivals Atletico Madrid at the end of this season in a deal worth around €6m to cash-strapped Rayo.
Jemez bases much of his ideas on an aggressive, offensive style that owes much to the terrific work rate of his midfielders – even though his squad looks to be short on numbers – and a team spirit he has sought to engender from day one. Whether his players can keep the momentum going in the final third of the season remains to be seen, with fears that burn-put may see a steady slide down the table, as occurred last term.
Still, the same things were being said this time last year about Levante under Juan Ignacio Martinez, like Jemez another Coach making his debut in the top flight, and as any La Liga fan will tell you, Los Granotes have not done too badly since then. Rayo fans will be praying for much of the same.