From Estadio de Vallecas
Rayo Vallecano missed the same penalty twice on Saturday afternoon, relinquished a two-goal lead, scored two goals of the highest aesthetic quality, and yet if there was one side that came out of their 2-2 draw on Saturday happier, it was probably the mighty Girona. The group entering the international break and the final third of the season with more reasons for optimism for, despite being five points and four places behind, are probably the Catalans too.
Los Franjirrojos broke their three-game scoring duck, but extended their winless run to four matches. A side predisposed to rev their engines and quicken the pace, before zooming past opponents, continues to falter with their new shiny component. Girona look as if their free-scoring forward line just added a superstar.
In the first-half, Rayo were slicing through the Girona press with plenty of success, stretching Arnau Martinez and Miguel Gutierrez, two of the more talented full-backs in the division, to breaking point. It used to be a great ‘what if’ for Spain to wonder just how good they might have been, should Lionel Messi have been convinced to play for them as a kid. After Isi Palazón, cut inside and thundered an effort into the top corner worthy of the Argentine, Vallecas wondered loudly if La Roja might have used something similar in the Seleccion.
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Not long after Viktor Tsygankov followed up Taty Castellanos header to level matters, but Oscar Trejo exchanged a lovely one-two and blasted them in front again.
If that was football fit for Camp Nou, Vallecas then saw Trejo and Palazon try something only previously seen at Camp Nou in Spain. The Rayo captain’s penalty was retaken after Paulo Gazzanigga saved the first, but rather than Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, this was Thierry Henry and Robert Pires – one of the more memorable penalties in La Liga history. As it was Girona, survived through to the second half with just a goal the difference between the two. That was the signal for the writer to begin a new paragraph and twist the narrative back on itself.
The visitors rebelled and took control of the second half in a manner that quietened subdued even the Bukaneros support. Knocking the ball around almost nonchalantly, but with quiet purpose and smooth accuracy, Michel Sanchez’s side took over the game. One man, Viktor Tsygankov, directed the show.
Each touch, soft but firm enough. Every intervention improved things for his side, Tsygankov is full of quality, but without anything crass to it, there was an impressive lack of ego in his play. Even when he cushioned the ball on his chest and played a pass over his head, it was still the most useful thing he could have done with the ball. It was in equal measure Ronaldinho and efficient – not an easy balance to strike. Pfft es que el tio este, es… [That guy there, he’s…] Even the home fans were running out of adjectives.
It was little surprise when he casually met the ball on the volley and spun home Girona’s equaliser seven minutes after half-time. Their Ukrainian star only arrived midway through January, but already his teammates look for him whenever possible. He speaks little Spanish, but his teammates understand him. In his last five games, he has three goals and three assists. The sign of every good creator, when Tsygankov gets the ball, the forwards start running.
¡Un doblete para sumar un punto de oro en Vallecas! 💥 Tsygankov, el nuevo hombre gol del @GironaFC #LaLigaEnDAZN ⚽ pic.twitter.com/gr54XS49zR
— DAZN España (@DAZN_ES) March 18, 2023
Five minutes after the equaliser, Rayo Vallecano responded by bringing on their own star January signing. Raul de Tomas joined the club in September from Espanyol, returning to where he initially caught the eye in La Liga. Andoni Iraola altered the formation to do so, bringing off Trejo. Less than ten minutes later, he reverted back to the 4-2-3-1, removing Sergio Camello to accommodate midfielder Unai Lopez in the face of blanket domination.
If Tsygankov knew he was better than everyone else on the pitch, de Tomas played like it. Linguistically, de Tomas has no issues, but in terms of understanding, the Madrid-born striker was on an entirely different wavelength. Without Camello running in behind, the entire Rayo attack condensed, and without space, it suffocated. De Tomas waited for the ball to be delivered to him, dropping deeper to involve himself but removing a focal point from the attack.
In his 33 minutes, de Tomas touched the ball eight times, completing just one of the four passes he attempted. The only shot he attempted was snatched selfishly from distance, bringing muffled curses from the crowed and quite probably his teammates too. Compared directly with the selfless Camello, the early encouragement de Tomas received didn’t take long to turn into groans. Put simply, they were a less dangerous team with him on the pitch, and his failure to score in eight games is not hard to understand.
The game would end 2-2, but if there was one team on verge of winning it, Girona were that side. Perhaps the best save came from Stole Dimitrievski, reacting quickly to divert a Castellanos effort. Picked out of course by Tsygankov, who had beaten future Real Madrid full-back Fran Garcia, and found the Argentine with his weaker foot.
While de Tomas can be forgiven for a lack of sharpness, the lack of relationship with his team is a concern. The Rayo Vallecano ecosystem is under threat. Michel has ensured that Tsygankov has transitioned into the team with little fuss. With him in the side, Girona look as if they have a new dimension and new possibilities; RDT looks like an entirely foreign object.