Real Madrid vs. Rayo Vallecano: Preview, News and Projected Mourinho Starting XI

Charlie MelmanCorrespondent IIJanuary 22, 2017

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 13: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid celebrates scoring his sides equalizing goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester United at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on February 13, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Real Madrid will attempt to do better than their performance against Manchester United on Tuesday and record a win against Rayo Vallecano this Sunday.

That's not to say Madrid put in a collective stinker versus the Red Devils; a 1-1 draw while keeping 61 percent of the ball when facing one of the best teams in the world is nothing to shake a stick at.

And, no offense to Rayo Vallecano, but the Franjirrojos are not quite as good as Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Co., despite sitting sixth in La Liga.

Plus, this game does not have quite the same importance for Los Blancos. Though Jose Mourinho's men stand a decent chance of winning the club's sorely desired 10th Champions League title, Barcelona's 16-point lead at the top of the table is insurmountable.

Really, the only thing Madrid have to play for in La Liga is second place—and, therefore, a finish above suddenly thriving, Radamel Falcao-inspired crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid.

The giants from the Santiago Bernabeu would, however, like to build some positive momentum ahead of both their second-leg trip to Old Trafford and following a massive cup tie against the old enemy, Barcelona.

There isn't a whole lot of team news for either side ahead of this game. Marcelo will likely not play, as he is not yet up to match fitness and has not traveled with the team for their past couple fixtures. Captain Iker Casillas is obviously still out with a broken hand, so Diego Lopez should continue in goal.

What Jose Mourinho will have to worry about is squad rotation. Madrid greatly taxed themselves against Manchester United in midweek, and those exertions can easily cause a lackluster performance versus an inferior opponent.

However, Mourinho does not rely heavily on rotation: When a certain group of players are in form and work together within his system, he tends to stick with them.

Thus, expect some changes from the side that broke even with United, but with the core of Madrid's attacking success intact.

In short, something like this:

I am most likely to be wrong about Raphael Varane partnering Sergio Ramos in the center of defense again.

Both started on Tuesday, and Pepe has not started many games recently. While stand-in captain Ramos is guaranteed a place in the starting XI, it would not be unreasonable for Mourinho to partner him with a fresh and familiar face.

Xabi Alonso is indispensable in midfield—he is the single element that makes Real Madrid tick, metronomically dictating possession. While he will start for the second time in a week, Sami Khedira probably will not, with Luka Modric ready to assume his position next to Alonso.

Khedira has been wonderful for Los Merengues all season, but I would prefer a fresh Modric to a weary version of the German any day.

And up front, it's very simple. While Mesut Ozil could be shifted to the right to make room for Kaka in midfield, it's not likely to happen. Ozil was one of Madrid's best, most creative players against Manchester United, and is much more effective when deployed centrally.

Thus, Angel di Maria will retain his position on the right wing. It's a bit frustrating that he is not allowed to play on the left, where his crossing ability is much more effective and better utilized, but Cristiano Ronaldo's unquestioned command of that position precludes anyone else from occupying the role.

Finally, expect Gonzalo Higuain to replace Karim Benzema at striker. This makes sense from a fitness perspective, as Benzema worked extremely hard against Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, and Higuain is easily capable of slotting into the Frenchman's position.

As with most of Real Madrid's matches, winning will come from the entire team coming ready to play and each individual doing his job.

If most of the elements that power the team's high-octane attack and lockdown defense perform up to their abilities, Jose Mourinho's men should walk out of the Santiago Bernabeu with three points.


Remember, if you want to follow along with the live match action, Bleacher Report's own Tre' Atkinson is your man. He'll have in-depth live blog coverage of the game.