Having scored 17 goals in 2011/12 to save Rayo Vallecano’s troubled Spanish La Liga status in their debut season, Michu was always set to leave the minnows of Vallecas. Fans bode no grudges towards their former saviour but felt almost consigned to imminent relegation after staving off the drop by only a matter of seconds just months before. Michu had been the surprise of the season, having joined for free from Celta Vigo the summer before, and stunned La Liga with a stream of goals that ensured Rayo were allowed to tread water for ample time, but the 2012/13 season would be near impossible to endure minus the popular Michu.
No matter how much Rayo received for his services, Michu had proven his value to be irreplaceable – the £2m Swansea paid offered the club little consolation. Finding a player able to surprise teams with clinical finishing for an affordable fee for a second season running was a concept nobody bothered to consider.
Leo Baptistao, a raw 19 year old fresh from the third tier of Spanish football, suddenly announced himself with a debut goal and assist to help Rayo to beat Real Betis just days short of his 20th birthday. In just the first minute Leo broke away from the Betis defence and fired in a low cross for Piti to tap in. A dream start for Leo was to improve on the hour mark when he ran into the area, shrugged off a challenge and slotted home to give Rayo their second victory of the season.
Little was known of Leo but the attention surrounding him intensified as he scored another against Atletico Madrid. By now the young Brazilian was being deployed in the attacking midfield role Michu had adopted and starred in last season, and the similarities don’t stop there. Skinny and slender, both players are able to head the ball with impressive accuracy and find the net with equal penchant. Most importantly however, the two players are able to surprise their opponents and drift in and out of the game.
A spell of three matches without a goal came, including a harrowing 6-1 defeat to newly promoted Valladolid, and the interest waned. Playing for an unfashionable club gave Leo a status in which very few knew of his real ability and potential. Very few knew that he’d been the foil for Neymar prior to his move to the Rayo Vallecano youth setup. Born in Santos, Leo and Neymar were together at Portuguesa Santista as youngsters before Leo flew out to Spain at the age of 16.
His life soon curtailed as he contracted hepatitis and returned home to be treated by his family. Once at full health, Leo returned to Spain and began his first full season of professional football as an 18 year old, plying his trade for Rayo’s B team in the Segunda B division. A broken collarbone meant further angst but he returned to score 4 times in 17 appearances, earning a contract with the first team for the new season.
Now in La Liga, Leo already has 6 goals in 12 games and has targeted even more by the turn of the year! At the rate he’s going, he’ll have scored more than Michu managed, which is quite an achievement for a 20 year old who’d never previously played in a division higher than Spain’s third tier.
Combined with his goals are assists. Leo added to the opening minute cross for Piti against Betis with one assist against Osasuna on Saturday and two against Malaga to help Rayo to a historic 2-1 win, Malaga’s first home loss of the season. With four assists for the team this season, Leo’s knowledge of the position is incredible already and has had an impact in 10 of Rayo’s league goals this season. Quite remarkable considering the team has scored just 18 in total.
Leo has instantly shaken the Michu hangover from Vallecas and proved himself to be an exciting replacement. Though very similar players playing in an identical position, Leo has shown his generous side by freely setting up goals for team mates whilst Michu favoured personal glory and a shot at goal. The current sultan of Swansea delivered just four assists all last season, and Leo is in a perfect position to surpass him.
Whether Leo surpasses Michu’s goals total remains to be seen for a youngster who continues to find his feet. 6 goals in 12 games is incredible but Leo must prove his capability over the entire season – Rayo are counting on him to stave off relegation for another season.
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