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More than any other club on the continent, Real Madrid defines itself by European success – and with good reason. Los Blancos have won the Champions League (née European Cup) 13 times. The next most successful side, AC Milan, have lifted the trophy on seven occasions. Madrid won the first five editions of the European Cup between 1956 and 1960. It is only four years since a team managed by Zinedine Zidane won its third Champions League on the bounce.
This season, though, Madrid might have to be content with domestic prizes. A 1-0 defeat by Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their last-16 clash is not enough to rule Carlo Ancelotti’s side out. Madrid could easily turn the tie around on home turf in early March. The worry, though, was their performance in Paris. Madrid did not look like a side that is capable of going all the way and beating the likes of Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Liverpool to the continental crown.
Madrid are at least going strong in La Liga. In truth they are top of the table in part by default. Barcelona are in transition after losing Lionel Messi last summer and changing managers towards the end of 2021. Atletico Madrid’s defense of their title has been disappointing, with some fans starting to wonder whether Diego Simeone has taken the club as far as he can. Sevilla have done brilliantly to keep Madrid honest, but they are now six points adrift of top spot.
Perhaps that is a touch unfair to Ancelotti’s side, who have comfortably been the best team in the division this term. But even Madrid fans will admit this team is in need of a refresh in the summer. Before then, los Blancos will hope to be crowned champions of Spain for a record-extending 35th time.
After a 2-0 victory over Alaves on December 18, Rayo Vallecano moved up to fourth place in the La Liga table. No one expected them to sustain a top four challenge, but European soccer was beginning to look like a possibility. That would have been a fantastic achievement for a club which won promotion from the second tier last season. Since that victory, though, things have gone badly wrong for Rayo.
No one at Vallecas will be panicking just yet. Rayo are sitting in 11th place – a position they would have gladly accepted were they offered it last summer, when avoiding relegation was their primary objective. They could easily still finish in the top half. Even European qualification might still be within reach, although Rayo would have to win most of their remaining matches to sneak into the top six.
For now, though, Rayo should simply focus on getting out of the rut they are stuck in. Andoni Iraola’s charges have taken just one point from the last 18 available. They have lost their last three games to mid-table opposition in the form of Celta Vigo, Osasuna and Elche. Rayo’s confidence has consequently taken a hit, which does not bode well for a meeting with Madrid.
Ancelotti was criticized for his conservative tactics against PSG earlier this month, but Madrid did deny their opponents clear-cut chances for much of the match. They have been even more solid in La Liga in recent weeks. Madrid have not always blown teams away, but they are tending to find a way to get the job done with a minimum of fuss. Three clean sheets on the bounce show that Madrid are not giving their opponents much of an opportunity.
A fourth successive shut-out this weekend is a distinct possibility. Rayo have failed to score in four of their last six matches. Having previously had the best home record in the division, they have failed to win any of their last three encounters on home turf.
Madrid might not be among Europe’s best sides right now, but they still have more than enough quality across the pitch to win matches like this without too much effort. Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior are enjoying excellent seasons up front, and their firepower will scare a Rayo defense which has not looked sure of itself in recent weeks.
There should be a raucous atmosphere at Vallecas, but that will not be enough to save Rayo. Back a Madrid win to nil.
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|Rayo Vallecano vs Real Madrid Information|
|Teams||Rayo Vallecano vs Real Madrid|
|Location||Estadio de Vallecas, Madrid, Spain|
|Time||Saturday, 26 February 2022, 12.30 PM EST|
|How to watch||ESPN|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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