Rayo Vallecano clinch promotion via the play-offs

Rayo flag

The 2020/21 Spanish domestic season came to an end on Sunday with the high stakes 2nd Leg of the Segunda Division play-off Final. Rayo Vallecano overturned a 2-1 1st Leg deficit to defeat Girona at Montilivi and claim the final place in next season’s Spanish top flight.

For Girona, it was Play-Off Final heartbreak for the second season running. They suffered late despair against Elche in the home 2nd Leg last term and despite heading into the game ahead in the tie and unbeaten in 11 matches, they failed to deliver when it mattered most again.

For Rayo though, it was a joyous end to the season as 1st Half goals from Álvaro García and Óscar Trejo put them in the ascendancy and they held on for a 2-0 win on the night despite being reduced to 10 men early in the Second Half. After two years in the second tier, the popular Madrid club will be back in the top flight again in 2021/22 – having claimed promotion for the eighth time in their history.

A season of highs & lows ends in glory

It has been a strange season for followers of Rayo Vallecano. At their best, they’ve played some of the most attractive football in LaLiga SmartBank and have been one of the few teams capable of mixing it with the likes of Espanyol and Real Mallorca who claimed the automatic promotion slots with relative ease. However there have also been some inexplicable lows and plenty of moments when they looked to be self-destructing.

A bright start saw Rayo win at recently relegated Mallorca on the opening weekend and back that up with three more points at home to Sabadell a week later. However they’d lose 5 of their next 9 as inconsistency set in, a trend which would continue to plague their season.

Things did start to click towards the end of the year as Rayo won 7 out of 8 in all competitions but just when it looked like they might be in a position to challenge for automatic promotion, another slump in form came. There was only one victory in their next 8 matches, albeit an impressive 3-2 triumph to complete the double over an Espanyol side that would go on to win the title.

Ultimately, Rayo were left with a battle to make the play-offs and avoid the fate of the previous season when they finished 7th under Paco Jemez. Three straight wins ensured Rayo’s destiny was in their own hands heading into a distinctly winnable final home game against relegation-threatened Lugo. However Rayo’s illogical campaign ended in fitting fashion with a shock 1-0 defeat against the Galicians.

They were granted a huge reprieve as Sporting Gijon failed to take advantage, losing their final game at home to Almeria to ensure Rayo grabbed 6th place and a crack at the play-offs. The Madrileños had got lucky but as is so often the case in football, the margins between success and failure can be small.

Having used up one life, Rayo Vallecano approached the Play-Off Semi-Final against neighbours Leganes determined to make the most of an opportunity that might not have presented itself. To some extent, the knockout element appeared to suit Rayo and their young coach Andoni Iraola.

Iraola underlines his coaching credentials

The former Athletic Club defender, really announced himself as an emerging Spanish coach to keep an eye on last season as he guided Segunda División Mirandés to the Copa del Rey Semi-Finals with shock wins over top flight sides Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal.

That feat attracted the attention of Rayo Vallecano who appointed him last summer. While there were question-marks early on this season, Iraola has frequently shown himself to be a man capable of finding the right gameplan in the big matches against top level coaches.

Just 38 years old, Iraola added to his growing résumé of impressive victories as a late goal blitz and a brace from Bebe, ensured Rayo took firm control of their Play-Off Semi by beating Leganes 3-0 in the 1st Leg in Vallecas. They won the return leg at Butarque too, setting up a Final showdown with Girona, the Segunda’s form side over the final couple of months of the campaign.

The momentum was largely with Girona heading into the tie and it was the Catalans who won the 1st Leg in Madrid, coming from behind to clinch a 2-1 victory. However the result certainly flattered Girona who only mustered up 3 attempts on goal in the match.

Down but by no means out, Iraola knew his team were capable of exposing Girona’s weaknesses and Rayo started brightly at Montilivi with the pace in their team causing problems for Francisco’s side, particularly down the Rayo left with Alvaro Garcia. The 28 year old, brilliantly brought down a long ball over the top before coolly lobbing the goalkeeper to level things up on the night and Rayo were in dreamland when Oscar Trejo made it 2-0 on the stroke of Half-Time.

A 3-2 aggregate advantage was a fair reflection of their superiority in the tie but a red card dished out to Emiliano Velázquez early in the Second Half, served up one final test of Iraola’s side. They had to dig deep, and while at times they resorted to some fairly blatant time-wasting, Rayo showcased a defensive resilience rarely evident during the regular season to see the game out and clinch promotion.

A promotion which doesn’t resolve fundamental problems

Rayo players and fans alike would have celebrated long into the night on Sunday having secured their return to the top flight. However once the hangovers fade, the stark realities at a club with significant off-field issues will remain and the immense challenge of preparing for what promises to be one of the most competitive ever Spanish top flight seasons will begin.

The first big issue to be resolved is the future of Iraola. He has been linked with other jobs in recent weeks, and his contract in Vallecas expires at the end of the month. Logic suggests that it makes sense for both parties if Rayo and Iraola quickly agree a new deal but we thought similar things when Pacheta guided Elche to an unlikely promotion via the play-offs last season and within days of their victory in Girona, he was out of a job.

Rayo Vallecano’s owner and president remains the deeply unpopular Raúl Martín Presa. Those wounds run deep and there are no on-pitch achievements that will heal the deep resentment that Rayo fans feel towards him. The sight of Presa celebrating on the pitch at Full-Time would have been the only sour note to the evening for fans of the Madrid club. There has been little sign of any willingness for him to hand over control of the club, and that’s even less likely to be the case now Rayo are set for the cash boost of top flight football again.

While they have some promising young players and some players with LaLiga experience, it’s clear that Rayo are going to need a good transfer window if they are going to be in with a real chance of competing in the higher tier. There are defensive flaws which need resolving while not one Rayo player reached double figures for goals this term so a proven striker looks like it will be high on their list of priorities.

The club’s stadium also remains in a state of decay and isn’t really fit for elite level football. At a time when many other small clubs around Spain have been making upgrades, Presa has shown little interest in investing in the stadium and when fans finally return in large numbers to Vallecas once the 2021/22 season commences, so will the boos and protests towards the owner.

Bitter dissatisfaction at the way the club is being run will again be the backdrop to another Rayo season.

Featured image of Rayo flag via K3T0, CC BY 2.5 ES

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About Mark Sochon 2062 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has been writing about Spanish football since 2014 and regularly attends and covers matches across Spain. His work has also been published by various newspapers and websites including These Football Times, World Soccer and Guardian Sport. Available for freelance work: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk

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