After their sensational 9-1 victory over Granada on Sunday, Real Madrid will attempt to keep the pressure on Barcelona at the top of La Liga when visiting Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday. The European champions fell four points behind their fierce rivals with defeat in el Clásico before the recent international break, but rediscovered their form in spectacular fashion with their biggest La Liga win since 1967.
It was a win highlighted by five goals for Cristiano Ronaldo as he moved back to the top of the league scoring charts, and above Lionel Messi, on 36 for the season. But almost equally as significant was a return for James Rodríguez. The Colombian, last summer’s big signing from Monaco, had been missing for two months due to a foot injury before marking his comeback with two assists.
With Isco due back from suspension, Madrid now have a tantalizing set of options in midfield and attack. Indeed, the challenge for manager Carlo Ancelotti is now deciding who to leave out of his lineup. With the Italian having previously stated that, if fit, the front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema would always play, it has been portrayed as a battle between James and Isco for a starting spot. But, especially with Bale struggling with a foot injury for Wednesday, Ancelotti has dismissed that suggestion.
“Both could play because they have played together many times,” he said, reports Spanish sports daily AS. “Bale has a knock on his left foot. It's not a debate between Isco and James, competition in a squad is a good thing. We have almost the whole squad in an optimum state. James is doing very well in his first season and Isco too. He's a great player and he has had some fantastic games. I'm lucky to have both of them. It's a welcome problem.”
By the time Madrid kick off against their city rivals they will know Barcelona’s result against Almeria, meaning they could be faced with a seven point deficit and pressure to avoid a gap that would surely prove insurmountable with just eight matches remaining. But encouragement will come from the fact that only three teams in La Liga have conceded more goals this season than Rayo. Indeed, Madrid beat Paco Jémez’s side 5-1 earlier in the season, with Barcelona going one better and winning 6-1 at the Camp Nou just a month ago.
Yet Rayo come into the match on the back of three consecutive wins since that loss to the Catalans. That form has taken them up into ninth place in the table, and, according to Ancelotti, makes them difficult opponents for Real Madrid.
“They are in the best form of the season,” he said. “The table says it all. They are playing very well and have been winning their games at home. We know it's going to be a tricky match."
Prediction: Between them these teams have drawn just three games in La Liga this season, so a stalemate looks unlikely. And, while Rayo have not been as porous at their Vallecas home, Real Madrid still have to be favored to pick up a win. The recent return of Luka Modric has been crucial in helping improve the balance of the side, while James showed against Granada why he has been missed. It may not be 9-1, but it should still be a comfortable win for Ancelotti’s men.
Predicted score: Real Madrid over Rayo Vallecano, 3-1
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. ET
TV channel: beIN Sports
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect