Rayo Vallecano v Real Sociedad is one of my favourite matches, and I usually try to get down to Madrid to see the fixture, the trip impeded last year by Rayo’s brief stay in the 2nd Division. There’s nothing particularly historic or special about the fixture itself, apart from the fact that it’s a great ground to visit. Having watched football now for some years and having seen so many changes, a visit to Vallecas, with all its scruffy unpretentiousness and its welcoming supporters keeps my spirits up. It reminds me of why I started watching live football in the first place. If they drank Bovril in Spain (they don’t) then Rayo’s ground would have it on sale at half-time, probably for 50 cents.
Alas, although I was close by in Valladolid on Saturday, I had to come back north for the ‘Tamborrada’ fiesta here in San Sebastián on Saturday night, meaning that the Vallecas re-acquaintance trip will have to wait until next season, assuming both sides are still in the top flight. You wouldn’t expect Sociedad to go down, but after the 2-2 draw Rayo are still in the bottom three, despite winning three games on the trot before Sunday’s fixture.
Such is the democracy in La Liga this season that Real Sociedad lie in 8th position, within spitting distance of the European places, but with only six points more than Rayo. Nobody, maybe save Huesca, is down and out as yet, but equally no side below 7th spot can feel comfortably clear of the relegation spots. A poor run of results, as a side like Celta have discovered, can suddenly leave you at the wrong end of the table.
Anyway, I was reading Roberto López Ufarte’s column in the local newspaper up here on Sunday morning. He writes well (for an ex-footballer) and quite apart from his tactical astuteness he manages to drop in some amusing anecdotes about his former life on the turf.
I remember him playing for Spain in the 1982 World Cup, but only on account of English commentator David Coleman’s famous scream ‘López Ufart!’ as he narrowly missed a shot against I can’t remember who. In Spain, all vowels are pronounced, but Coleman, who fancied himself as a bit of a linguist, made the fatal assumption that the final ‘e’ of the player’s name was mute, as in French. His scream, as the player hit a shot narrowly wide sounded thus – ‘López you fart!’ Ah, David Coleman. We do miss him. I also played against him (López-Ufarte, not Coleman) on the beach in San Sebastián several years ago, and he sat me on my arse with a hip shuffle the like of which we shall seldom see again. If you want to read about that particular match, you’ll just have to buy the book ‘Morbo’, which is, I confess, a rather sleazy way to conclude this paragraph.
Anyway, You Fart claimed in his Sunday article that on two occasions, when Real Sociedad were pressing for equalisers at Rayo’s ground in the 1980s, the lights mysteriously failed, enabling the home players to have a rest and regroup. On both occasions, when Sociedad enquired as to the reasons for the floodlight failures, Rayo’s administration put it down to rats, which had ‘nibbled at the cables’. Added to this, there is still a tradition at the ground of placing an annoyingly loud drummer behind the away team’s bench, allegedly with the purpose of obstructing the visiting coaches’ ability to communicate orders to their players. None of this matters, of course, because Rayo rob from the rich and give to the poor, and we all love their weird little three-sided ground. The only time I prefer them to lose is the Sociedad fixture, but even then I’m not too upset if they win.
On Saturday they were 2-0 up after 28 minutes and seemingly cruising, but with the way their smallish pitch influences the patterns of the game, it was unlikely that the score would stay thus. You could be double-bluffed into thinking that the Vallecas pitch is the same as all the rest and that it is merely a visual trick because of the proximity of the three stands and the wall behind one goal, but it is in fact the smallest in the category. The biggest pitch in the top three divisions (in case you’re in a nerdy mood today) is actually at Elche’s Martinez Valero stadium, measuring a mighty 108 x 70 meters. Rayo’s comes in at a comparative 100 x 65. Of other grounds, my impression has always been that Celta’s Balaidos is an enormous grassed plain, with herds of roaming wildebeest on the far horizons, but it’s actually 105 x 69 – fairly standard if you compare it to Barcelona’s 105 x 68 (same as the Bernabéu).
Does size matter? Well, teams allegedly find it difficult to play at Rayo, but at the very least they know what to expect. You have to group your midfielders in such a way as to prevent the opposing mid-men having the time to filter quick balls through the middle – because defenders tend to play high in order to avoid being too close to goal. The keepers often become sweepers at this ground, and indeed, Rayo’s second goal, scored by the excellent Adrian Embarba, required the attacker to lift the ball ingeniously over the onrushing Rulli after Hector Moreno had lost his footing and allowed that preciously small space behind the back line and the goalkeeper to open up for a millisecond. The same thing happened with Sociedad’s 2-2 equaliser, Oyarzabal threading a short vertical ball onto Januzaz’s run into that limited, almost prohibitive space. The Belgian lost it, but it deflected back to Willian José and the rest was history.
I watched the game in my usual local bar, with the TV muted, the door wide open and a constant procession of soldiers and cooks dressed in 1813 uniforms coming hither and thither for beers and sustenance. The drums beat incessantly outside (the festival loosely commemorates the kicking-out of the Napoleonic troops from the city in 1813) as the game went on inside a television down in Vallecas, in an entirely parallel universe. Rayo thus remain in the bottom three and their second-half performance betrayed their relative lack of general quality compared to Real Sociedad’s – but they should stay up. I hope so.
Raúl de Tomás didn’t have one of his better games, but it still seems odd that Real Madrid didn’t fish him back at Christmas, especially when they were feeling the pinch. And despite their fine win against Sevilla on Saturday, it was still midfielders (Casemiro and Modric) who scored. De Tomás might be the kind of guy who would thrive in the elevated company of Real Madrid’s providers. Meanwhile, I hear from my deep throat that one of La Liga’s top three sides want Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal for next season. Discretion (and a promise) prevents me from revealing the guilty team, but their policy is not at all surprising. Oyarzabal is not quite the finished product, but he’s not far off. Despite his unfeasibly big feet, he is tactically astute, works hard and almost always ends up as the major influence on a game, by dint of sheer persistence. I thought he might fade after the explosive start to his career, but after a brief plateau period he’s back, and Luis Enrique must surely call him up now for the seniors.
Other news from the weekend? Getafe continue to confound and are now only two points shy of the Champions League spots after burying Alavés 4-0 on Friday night. Unilke Rayo, Getafe’s over-practical style fails to engender sympathy, but their recent form is mightily impressive, having only lost one in the last eight.
Next week they nip up to Atlético’s ground for a derby of sorts. That could be interesting. With only 16 goals conceded they’re second to Atlético (13) in the defensive stakes.
At the top of the tree, Luis Suarez’ disputed goal against Leganés, for which the VAR has once again been called into question, looks like a legitimate goal to me. Can’t see the fuss. He has to go for the ball, as does the keeper. He raises his leg to connect with the ball, not the keeper, who is in a semi-crouched position anyway. VAR got it right. Barcelona will now hope that Getafe can do them some favours by helping them to put more distance between themselves and Atlético (currently 3 points) whilst they themselves have a potentially tricky one away to Catalan cousins Girona – the game that Tebas wanted them to play in the United States, if you recall. I can see them coming unstuck in that one.
Let’s see what Eduardo thinks in next week’s quiniela. And remember, as Rayo Vallecano’s pitch reminds us – size doesn’t really matter. It’s just a question of knowing what to do with your limitations. On that note I wish you a happy week.