This article also featured on this week’s Onside Inzaghi podcast.
“None of you will like to be in the Segunda” Paco Jemez told his players. "This is the last chance you have to remain a Primera Division player. You have to go out, give everything and beat Real Madrid." Two hours later Jemez’s Rayo Vallecano side were celebrating their first win over the European champions in 22 years. Afterwards he explained “we beat Real Madrid, I can die happy.” While beating Madrid may have been their last chance, a win was just as crucial over Levante on Saturday morning. Although he may die happy, Jemez won’t end the season in good spirits as Rayo’s hope proved short lived.
Although Vallecano were 6 points adrift with three games to play, the win over Real Madrid coupled with the fact that their last three games came against direct relegation rivals sparked hope. Three wins would have meant 40 points, a total that stood a good chance of keeping Rayo in the top flight even if Jemez said beforehand that “it would be a sporting miracle,” if they stayed up although contradictory also stating “I’m convinced that if we win, we will survive.” But they had to beat Levante on Saturday. Oddly, despite the win over Real and being a club known for fight and passion, Vallecano posted an surprisingly limp display at Levante and joined Huesca in having their relegation confirmed.
After just 14 minutes Emiliano Velazquez weak attempt to clear Tono Garcia’s cross found Jose Campana who couldn’t miss. Jose Luis Morales, Levante’s player of the season by some distance, won and missed a penalty before Ruben Vezo’s header made it two at half time. Rayo stirred briefly in the final quarter, Alvaro Garcia rounding off a well worked opening but Levante always looked much more dangerous and Rayo’s fate was sealed after Adri Embarba’s sending off and Jason’s late header. Enis Bardhi’s near post finish in injury time made it 4-1. It was Rayo’s eight away defeat in a row and the scoreline didn’t flatter Levante in the slightest.
Despite their defeat, Rayo still theoretically had a chance. Two wins from their last two games, along with an unlikely sequence of other results could have produced a four way tie between themselves, Huesca, Girona and Valladolid on 37 points. Rayo would have had the advantage in the mid head-to-head table which would have seen them survive. Nevertheless Valladolid’s 1-0 win over Bilbao on Sunday afternoon confirmed what, judging by their reaction, the Rayo players seemed to have accepted at full time on Saturday morning. Jemez accepted as much in the aftermath, “I'm going to keep fighting” he said but “I'm not convinced.”
Keeper Alberto Garcia said afterwards that the squad must “take responsibility” for their poor performances this season, via twitter full back Alex Moreno asked for “forgiveness” for the relegation while Jemez explained the club “must not make excuses” and that the mistake that "there was not so much difference between Levante and Rayo in the Primera” this season, Jemez said, “but we made mistakes that can not be made in this league.” Jemez highlighted Velazquez’s mistake to present Levante with the lead as an example.
Although relegation will hurt, it is a pain the Madrid club and their crumbling Vallecas ground have experience often. Something of a ‘yo-yo club’, this will be Rayo’s 14th promotion or relegation since 1989. Just this century has encompassed a run to the UEFA Cup quarter finals and four seasons in the third tier Segunda B. Although unlike previous seasons when player turnover has been dramatic following relegation, only 5 players have survive from their last relegation in 2016, Marca reported the club are insistent that many of the 15 players under contract for next season will only be sold if release clauses are met.
Although influential left back Alex Moreno seems set for Real Betis, Marca say, that list includes first teamers such as forwards Adri Embarba and Bebe as well as both goalkeepers and defender Abdoulaye Ba. 14 goal striker Raul de Tomas however will return to Real Madrid after his loan and will be difficult to replace having helped the club to the Segunda title last term. La Liga suitors will be plenty for the forward..
Unlike their previous relegation from La Liga, Jemez will be staying into next season. After four years as Rayo coach between 2012 and 2016, which also included an 8th placed finish - the club’s best ever league season, Jemez was drafted in for a second stint at Vallecas after a tearful Michel was sacked in March following seven consecutive defeats with relegation looming.
A Rayo legend having played over 300 league games across two spells as a player before coaching the club back to La Liga via the Segunda title last season having been promoted from managing the youth team, Michel was unable to adapt to the Primera. Conceding the most goals in the division (66 to date) and scoring just 38 times in 36 games proved unsustainable, as did just 10 points away from home - the league’s worst record.
Of those 38 goals, Raul de Tomas contributed 14 but had little support from winter addition Franco Di Santo, formerly of Chelsea and Schalke, and key summer signings. Gael Kakuta fell out with the club over a return to France and hasn’t started a game since October having been superb in keeping Amiens in Ligue 1 last term while Gianni Imbula proved more than ineffective. The Frenchman’s pair of 20m euro moves to Porto in 2015 and then Stoke 18 months later seem almost comical after an equally abject campaign with Toulouse last season. Although Rayo have clung on, nearly until the end, their lack of quality outside of de Tomas has been prohibitive.
Huesca meanwhile kicked off on Sunday night against Valencia knowing that Valladolid's win had also condemned them to swift return to Segunda. The 6-2 loss and a 5-0 halftime deficit underlined Huesca’s mood having battled back into contention following just a single win and only 8 points from their opening seventeen league games. A table since week 18 has the Argaonese club in 13th, just a point behind Sevilla in that time, underlining that their displays have been far from abject despite their slow adaptation to La Liga, this being the club’s first ever top flight season.
Ezequiel Avila’s spinning volley in the August draw with Bilbao was one of a handful of goal of the season contenders in one of many memorable performances which included wins over both Seville clubs and giving Madrid a scare at the Bernabeu, eventually losing 3-2 having taken the lead. Like Rayo, Huesca will keep the majority of their squad for next season and will be a threat to return for a second season in La Liga from Segunda next season. Having only formed in 1960 and only made it to the second tier for the first time a decade ago, relatively, Huesca remain a club on the up despite their tiny ground and comparative lack of resources.
Given that Huesca, Rayo and fellow promoted side Valladolid, who sit 17th for now, have the three smallest budgets in La Liga, relegation isn’t a surprise but it naturally highlights the gap between Spain’s first and second tiers. However, although the three promoted sides may all be sent swiftly back down, the strength in depth of the lower divisions is clear. A fact underlined success of teams like Girona, Eibar and Leganes as tiny clubs with little history surviving in La Liga while former stalwarts of the top flight, such as Tenerife, Real Oviedo, Racing Santander, Real Mallorca and Real Zaragoza, struggle to return.
For both teams their fates were perhaps sealed as they met in April, eventually drawing 0-0. Huesca manager Francisco Rodríguez said pre-match it was “a final, the most important of them all.” Both teams were unable to capitalise on a gung-ho second half and as AS dramatically outlined the following morning the draw “pushed them both into hell.” Nevertheless, for Rayo, given their history of bouncing from Primera to Segunda and the club’s more aggressive attempt to hold onto their first team this summer, it’s likely Jemez will be proven wrong. His players will get a another chance to be first division players soon enough.
by Adam White