Madrid-based club punching above their weight on limited resources, writes Andy Mitten.
Rayo Vallecano continue to defy expectations
The first half of the Spanish season is over, with Barcelona nominal "winter champions".
No trophies are awarded and little is gained beyond increased expectations. Fail to convert your winter champion status into league winners in May and you have failed.
Barcelona finished the first half of the season with a record 18 wins and a draw from 19 games.
They are 11 clear of Atletico Madrid in second, 18 ahead of Real Madrid in third. Atletico's form, which includes 10 wins from 10 home matches, has surprised, as has that of another Madrid club, Rayo Vallecano.
Rayo won their fourth successive game – luckily, admittedly – at Athletic Bilbao.
"We had 12 chances, they had three," said Athletic's no-nonsense coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Rayo have risen to sixth, a European spot. It is their best first half of a season, better than in 1999/2000 when Juande Ramos was in charge.
Rayo have made it to Europe only once – and that was thanks to the Fair Play league.
The club from Madrid are achieving against the odds. They have had their fixtures shunted around more than any other club to the least popular slots, playing more games on a Monday than others, and on a Friday, too. Their left-wing fans in their three-sided stadium were not slow to protest and supporters of other clubs sympathise with them.
Rayo started this season as favourites to be relegated. They had lost their star, Michu, to Swansea City in the English Premier League, with their precarious financial situation – they are in administration – meaning they sold him for just £2 million (Dh11.9m).
It was not only Michu. Five players from the first XI last season, and their legendary manager Sandoval, had been sacked after they had slumped at the end of last season. They were 10th after beating Real Betis after 28 games, 17th and facing relegation with a game to go.
Rayo also started this season with the lowest budget in the league. Traditionally, they have brought in loan players and given them an opportunity to shine, or signed young or disenfranchised players and let them prosper with first-team football.
Their star is the 20-year-old Brazilian Leo Baptistao, who will move to neighbours Atletico next season. Yet Rayo continue to thrive and play aggressive, attacking football, even against Barcelona and Madrid.
Their top scorer, Piti, who has nine league goals, played as an amateur until he was 23, and he is loving life. Who can blame him, at a club who plunge to rock bottom … and then rise clutching a bar of gold each time?
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