Rayo Vallecano welcome Atletico Madrid in La Liga hoping for a more enjoyable derby experience than the one they endured in their previous outing.
Paco Jemez’s team performed with bold ambition to take an early 2-1 lead against Real Madrid last time out before their outing at Santiago Bernabeu caved in spectacularly.
First-half red cards for Tito and Raul Baena left them stricken as Real made merry – Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema scoring four and three respectively in a punishing 10-2 rout.
Paco has had plenty of time over Christmas to sleep on a result he likened to “a bad dream”, although his opposite number Diego Simeone also had an outing to rue during the 10-day break from Liga action.
With Barcelona away in Japan en route to Club World Cup glory, Atleti had a chance to claim top spot when they travelled to Malaga.
But a Charles goal four minutes from time gave the hosts a 1-0 triumph, ending a run of nine consecutive wins in all competitions for Simeone’s men.
Gabi was sent off during the second half, meaning he will join Tito and Baena as a spectator at Vallecas – a stadium graced by Saul Niguez in 2013-14 during a loan spell with Rayo from Atletico.
The 21-year-old has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign and added goals to his game – four in 18 appearances across all competitions.
“I feel more comfortable going forward, but I can play in different positions to help the team and I’ll always do my best,” Saul told Mundo Deportivo.
“I enjoyed the season I was with Rayo. All the situations which occurred were positive and I found a great team, club, people and fans.
“They were all were very good to me and I owe Rayo a lot.
“If I keep doing well and show consistency then  will be my year.
“I’ve worked hard for many years to get here, but I have to keep working hard to get good results.”
Saul is similarly keen to take lessons from the setback at Malaga.
“We wanted to come out strongly and press them because it was a very important game and we saw how they played,” he said.
“We have to learn from this. If we don’t give 100 per cent in every game, we can’t meet our objectives.
“We were surprised because we always say that the first few minutes are to break down [the opposition] and go at it strongly.
“They made it difficult for us and were lucky enough to score a goal and win the game.
“Rayo always play the same way. They’ll try to damage us with their attackers.
“We need a complete game if we want to earn the victory. Rayo will go on the attack.”
Atletico are level on points with champions Barca and Simeone must decide whether to recall fit-again striker Jackson Martinez after a misfiring start to life in Spain for the former Porto star.
It would be an additional threat Paco might not welcome, with his defence having leaked goals in the six matches prior to the Real mauling to sit in the relegation zone.
Key Opta stats:
– Rayo Vallecano have not won in their last four La Liga games against Atletico Madrid (D1 L3).
– At Vallecas, Rayo have just one win in their last eight games against Atletico in the top tier (D3 L4). That triumph was a 2-1 victory in February 2013.
– Defeat to Atleti would hand Rayo five consecutive La Liga losses, which would be their worst slump since six straight defeats in September 2013.
– Atletico have conceded the fewest goals in Spain’s top flight this season (eight). Rayo’s 37 represents the division’s worst defensive record.
– Diego Simeone’s side are undefeated in last 14 Madrid derbies in La Liga (W11 D3).