Ciutat de Valencia, Valencia – “A big match for Levante, a massive one for Rayo” was the headline in Diario AS on Saturday morning. In a few hours time, the two would meet at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium, with Levante aiming to extend the buffer between themselves and the drop zone to a greater margin and almost guaranteeing safety, whilst Rayo hoped to postpone relegation for another few days at least.

Rayo have anticipated relegation for some time, even when they were promoted last summer back to La Liga following two seasons in the Segunda there was a strong feeling that they could come straight back down. For Rayo are a yo-yo club, not quite good enough for the top-flight but always in contention in the second-tier when they’ve been there in recent seasons. Over the past 30 years they have spent 15 in Primera, 11 in Segunda, and four in Tercera. The sentiment of AS’s headline in the build up to this match was therefore slightly ignorant.

Rayo would obviously rather stay in La Liga but relegated or not, the club will act and work in the same way as they have always done. They are a club with principles, embedded in it’s local community – the southern Madrid barrio of Vallecas – and is open and keen to express exactly what and who the club stands for. Their voices don’t diminish whether they are in the first, second, or third division, the only things that change is the quality of the players who turn up to hear about it.

It must be said that Rayo have looked doomed for a while; they have been in the bottom three for all but one week of the season, when they reached the heady heights of seventeenth place. They have conceded more goals than any other La Liga team this season and have been on the end of some heavy defeats: 5-0, 5-1, two 4-1s. Only lately have they shown slight signs of possibly sneaking back into La Liga next season but a run of seven losses in February and March has given them too much to do.

That poor run of form led to Michel leaving as manager and Paco Jemez returning to the club he managed previously in his own unique style. Not even Jemez has been able to save Rayo from the drop, although he has enhanced their fight further. It may sound harsh to say that Rayo don’t fit in La Liga, but they don’t. It only takes a trip to the Vallecas stadium to see this. In it’s own way it is a special place that has years of history – quite literally – on display. It is basic but very homely and the Rayo supporters would have it no other way.

Rayo pride themselves on being different. They are different to most other clubs in Spain, let alone in the first division. But they are so clear with how they want to operate – willing to bring in players of various nationalities, ages and experiences so long as they buy into the Rayo way.

Which in short, is a down-to-earth, everyone together approach. The ideology is clear and has taken Rayo further than many expected. It is why when Rayo do find themselves with a season or two in La Liga that they enjoy it, don’t get burdened with the silly things that the more comfortable and mundane mid-table clubs do. Humdrum doesn’t exist at Vallecas. It is why this game against Levante was not do-or-die, nor was it a ‘massive match’ rather it was an opportunity.

Their opponents on Saturday, Levante, were all but safe; draws seemed to be keeping them in the league having drawn four out of seven in March and April. Last weekend they were unlucky to lose to Barcelona in what turned out to be their La Liga coronation but at home to Rayo they hoped to seal their safety with two games to go. And it was the hosts who took the lead in the 14th minute, Tono maneuvering his way down the left wing pulled the ball back across goal where Rayo defender Abdoulaye Ba hesitated allowing Jose Campana to slot the ball past Alberto Garcia.

Since taking over Jemez has tried to tap into Rayo’s willingness to create goalscoring chances. Jemez, himself, is far from a conservative coach and with Raul de Tomas – scorer of 14 league goals this season, and by far their best player – he looked to get the ball into the opponent’s penalty area quicker and more effectively.

The reason why Rayo did still have a glimmer of hope of survival was mainly due to their 1-0 victory against Real Madrid last weekend. That was the type of win and performance that the Rayo fans will long remember, bloodying the nose of their affluent city neighbours will be one for those in Vallecas to cherish. However the here and now was requiring action from Rayo and beneath the searing Valencian midday sunshine they were staring relegation in the face.

Prior to the half hour, De Tomas forced a reflex save from Aitor Fernandez following a supreme delivery from Bebe on the left. Moments later, it looked like the hosts were going to make their opponents pay when Ruben Vezo played an accurate diagonal ball to Jose Luis Morales. Upon entering the area, Morales was brought down by Adri Embarba and the referee pointed to the spot. Alberto, despite diving to his left, was able to deny Borja Mayoral from the spot with his legs, spurring Rayo on.

Paco Lopez, the Levante manager and similar in every way (appearance, name and demeanor) to the other Paco, urged his side to seek a second before the break. On the cusp of the interval they did just that. It stated with a counter, as if often does for Levante. Nikola Vukevic was the thoroughfare through which the move passed and he threaded a ball out towards Morales.

The Levante captain played a square ball across to Mayoral who’s attempt at goal was turned away for a corner by Alberto. The delivery was swung into the area where Vezo leapt highest to guide the ball past Alberto and in at the far post. The second half was much more low key until a well-worked move from Rayo ended with substitute Alvaro Garcia sliding the ball past Aitor.

Rare Rayo frustrations were shown when Embarba lunged in recklessly and received his second yellow card and consequently his marching orders. Given their basement position for more or less the entirety of the season, the losing of heads has not been seen too often. This however was one occasion. The game was sown up when Tono headed in Levante’s third from a Campana corner, and then another was scored in injury time when Enis Bardhi’s strike was originally disallowed for offside before being rightly awarded.

“There was not much between Levante and Rayo,” Jemez said post-match. “But we made mistakes that can not be made in this division; the first goal, the penalty, the second goal, you cannot make those mistakes here.” Valladolid’s win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday confirmed Rayo’s relegation. “We have left our souls in the attempt to reach the end alive,” Jemez said. Although this will be Jemez’s second relegation with Rayo, there will be few excuses and little need for soul searching, as Rayo’s soul is clear for all to see. They will be back, just like before.

Los Otros Puntos

At the end of this season, Marc Cucurella will be back at Barcelona. The Catalans are to trigger a buy-back clause on the Spaniard after impressing this season at Eibar. He was again in fine form as the Basques beat Real Betis by a single goal from Jose Diaz. Betis have only managed 18 points since the winter break with wins being sparse, sending them tumbling down the table from European contenders to the wrong side of mid-table. Quique Setien will not continue as coach after this season, with Julen Lopetegui – who was in the crowd at Ipurua on Sunday – being linked as a possible replacement.

The fight for fourth-place is certainly falling into place for Getafe. They beat Girona with room to spare on Sunday morning thanks to goals from Jorge Molina and Angel. Meanwhile on Friday, Sevilla fell to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Leganes, who are hardly the most prolific scorers in the division. It was an embarrassing result for Sevilla, which takes the gap between them and Getafe to three points. They face Atletico Madrid next weekend whilst Jose Bordalas’s side travel to Barcelona. They couldn’t, could they?

In fact it was a weekend full of shocks as Espanyol won by a margin of three against Atletico Madrid, a vastly changed Barcelona lost 2-0 away against Celta Vigo which enhances their chances of safety dramatically, and also Real Madrid won!

Huesca’s season was summed up in their game against Valencia: not good enough, but played with character and enterprise. They are down too.

Woof!! If that is the goal to keep Valladolid in the division, then wow!

Los Resultados

Sevilla 0-3 Leganes

Levante 4-1 Rayo Vallecano

Espanyol 3-0 Atletico

Alaves 0-1 Real Sociedad

Celta Vigo 2-0 Barcelona

Getafe 2-0 Girona

Eibar 1-0 Real Betis

Real Madrid 3-2 Villarreal

Valladolid 1-0 Athletic

Huesca 2-6 Valencia

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis Opinion