Although keen to avoid predictions about his team's chances of European qualification, Rayo Vallecano de Madrid coach Paco Jémez nonetheless believes the Franjirrojos have "something beautiful in our hands" as they look to build on a memorable Liga campaign.
Sixth in the Spanish standings – with last Sunday's 3-0 home win against Real Betis Balompié their 11th victory so far – Rayo's achievements this term seemed unlikely eight months ago when they narrowly avoided relegation in their final game of last season.
Changes followed and chief among them was the coaching appointment of former Rayo defender Paco, 42, who immediately began impressing his style on the side said to have the smallest budget of the 20 clubs in Spain's top flight.
"If we want to fill our stadium, we have to try to entertain the fans," the former RSD Alcalá, FC Cartagena, UD Las Palmas and Córdoba CF coach said on his arrival in the Madrid suburb of Vallecas. "The smaller you are, the braver you must be."
True to his word, the ex-Spanish international – who counts three appearances at UEFA EURO 2000 among his 21 caps for La Roja – sent his team out to attack. Experiments with a three-man defence backfired badly with heavy losses against Real Valladolid CF, FC Barcelona and Real Sociedad de Fútbol, but Rayo have largely responded positively and trail only two sides in the Liga possession stats – Barcelona and Real Madrid CF.
"As a group we know that when you play against the best, you must compete like the best," the former RC Deportivo La Coruña and Real Zaragoza centre-back said. "We will continue to fight for every point available and see where that gets us. This team can achieve great things – we have something beautiful in our hands – but only by taking things one game at a time."
Attacking football and a willingness to trust in young players have helped them to wins away to UEFA Champions League contenders Málaga CF and Valencia CF as well as 2012 UEFA Europa League finalists Athletic Club. Brazilian forward Léo Baptistão is one tyro taking advantage of the youth policy, with the 20-year-old – among ten Rayo players to score this term – recently telling UEFA.com he and his team-mates aren't questioning how far they can go.
"As our coach said to us, we mustn't put any limitations on ourselves," the ex-futsal player said. "We always think about climbing the table and improving. Our coach gives us courage and tells us to never give up while encouraging an offensive style of play. We are very happy."
Almost 12 years have passed since Juande Ramos guided the capital club to the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in what remains their only European campaign. Now led by a similarly steadfast coach, Rayo are beginning to dream of a return to continental competition.
"As a player, I would get sick of hearing people say, 'you'll get nowhere in your career,'" Paco said. "In the end I played nearly 300 top-flight games and was an international 21 times. Nobody [has the right] to tell me how far I can go."
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