19:15 BST, Sunday 19th August, Vallecas, Eleven Sports
It’s probably best not to tell Sevilla that their season is starting this weekend: the Andalusian club’s Europa League qualifying campaign got underway nearly a month ago and they have already played five competitive games including last weekend’s Super Cup defeat against Barcelona.
Those games so far have delivered a mixed batch of results and performances under new coach Pablo Machin. Machin is steadily imparting his playing methods – a 3-4-3 formation based on rapid ball movement – to his strengthened squad and, with a testing batch of fixtures coming up, they need to make a positive entrance into the league campaign.
Hosts Rayo are making their return to the top flight after a two-year absence, having won the Segunda Division title with room to spare last season.
The Madrid-based club will be roared on by a raucous atmosphere in the small but intimidating Vallecas stadium and so Sevilla will need to be ready for an intense environment both on and off the pitch.
Last Time Out
Leganes 2-0 Rayo (Friendly)
Rayo’s closing pre-season friendly delivered an away loss against another of La Liga’s Madrid-based minnows, Leganes.
The visitors had the better of the early exchanges and could have taken the lead when Gael Kakuta found space to meet a deep cross but could only send his header into the side-netting.
Almost immediately Leganes went ahead: a weak back pass by Rayo left back Alex Moreno gifting possession to Guido Carrillo who took advantage with a firm finish.
Rayo had a couple of half-chances to level in the second half but the outcome was sealed when Carrillo netted his second, slotting easily into an empty net after a save from visiting goalkeeper Alberto Garcia fell straight to his feet.
Zalgiris Vilnius 0-5 Sevilla (Europa League)
Sevilla headed to Lithuania defending a narrow one-goal advantage from the first leg. They made light work of their progression to the next stage, though, by scoring twice inside the opening ten minutes through Nolito and Pablo Sarabia.
Those two strikes broke Zalgiris’ resistance and Sevilla continued their untroubled progress with another goal on the stroke of half-time as Sarabia netted his second of the night and third in two games.
Young Brazilian Guilherme Arana made it 4-0 in the latter stage and Nolito completed his brace and the scoring with the fifth goal inside the final ten minutes, ensuring an extremely comfortable passage to the final qualifying round and a two-legged clash with Sigma Olomouc from the Czech Republic.
Rayo Vallecano Lineup
Rayo manager Michel – a former playing legend for the club who returned as manager 18 months ago – bolstered his squad ahead of the new season by signing former Real Madrid youth trainee Alvaro Medran on loan from Valencia.
However, the midfielder may have to wait for his debut after only taking part in three training sessions with his new teammates.
The hosts will be without suspended midfielder Santi Comesana while Emiliano Velazquez will probably get the nod ahead of new signing Jordi Amat in the centre of defence.
After a busy schedule of important fixtures, including Thursday’s crucial continental trip to Vilnius, Machin must be tempted to ring the changes and start some fresh legs for this weekend’s league opener.
The former Girona boss has options in attack with Luis Muriel, Wissam Ben Yedder and new signing Andre Silva vying for the centre forward spot.
Elsewhere, Franco Vazquez, Nolito, Aleix Vidal and Pablo Sarabia are all available for the wide positions. Defender Nicolas Pareja could be back in contention after a spell sidelined by a muscle strain.
Key Battle: Gorka Elustondo (Rayo Vallecano) vs Ever Banega (Sevilla)
The opening day atmosphere inside the vibrant Vallecas stadium is sure to be frenetic and frantic. Sevilla will look to take the sting out of the occasion by getting their foot on the ball and controlling the tempo of the game through midfield conductor Ever Banega.
The importance of Banega’s passing talents to his team have been further heightened by this week’s sale of Steven N’Zonzi to Roma and so manager Machin will expect his experienced Argentina international – now 30 years old – to step up and provide a leadership role as well as showcasing his technical skills.
Banega can be an elusive presence to subdue and a key role in closing him down will fall to Rayo midfielder Gorka Elustondo.
The home team’s small squad contains relatively little top-flight experience but Elustondo has an abundance following his eight seasons with Real Sociedad and two more with Athletic Bilbao.
His know-how and defensive instincts will be vital in preventing Banega from becoming the game’s main protagonist and dictating the flow of the action.
Sevilla on the back foot or taking charge?
Sevilla manager Machin is a positive presence who generally prefers to see his teams adopt an ambitious approach, attempting to put their opponents on the back foot.
He was able to guide tiny Girona to a great deal of success with that attitude but also showed his flexibility in last weekend’s Super Cup meeting with Barcelona by sitting his players deep and looking to launch rapid counter-attacks.
The quality of players at Machin’s disposal allows him to adopt either tactic but this weekend against unfancied Rayo he will surely prefer his players to impose themselves and take charge of the contest rather than lying deep.
The strategy he chooses could reveal a great deal about his plans for the team this season.
Rayo short up front?
Rayo’s last experience of top-flight football was noted for a gung-ho approach based on high pressing and all-out attacking endeavour under uncompromising coach Paco Jemez.
To an extent that philosophy has been maintained by current boss Michel: they were the second-highest scorers in the Segunda Division last season, netting 67 goals in 42 games.
However, goals will be much harder to find at the higher level and the last few weeks have been dominated by a search for a new striker to complement – or perhaps replace – wily veteran Javi Guerra.
A host of names have been linked including Raul de Tomas, who scored 24 league goals for Rayo last season during a loan spell from neighbours Real Madrid.
The urgency of finding more strike power could be highlighted by this tough opening day assignment.
Prediction: Rayo 0-2 Sevilla
Roared on by their passionate fans, Rayo will look to make a fast start and could pin Sevilla deep into their own half during the early exchanges.
A lack of quality in Rayo’s attack should allow the visitors to weather that storm and they will gradually take control of the contest before pulling away to a relatively comfortable victory in the second half. But if Rayo can grab the early goal they need, it could become a real humdinger.