MADRID — Coach Rafa Benitez may not survive another Real Madrid setback in the Spanish league.
Madrid hosts struggling Rayo Vallecano on Saturday with Benitez under heavy pressure again following a loss at Villarreal in the previous round. The coach has been loudly criticized by fans and local media, and only a convincing victory this weekend may keep him from losing his job.
Former Madrid star Zinedine Zidane has made front page headlines in Spain this week, touted as the man ready to replace Benitez as soon as he's gone.
A win is also crucial to keep Madrid from losing ground to frontrunners Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, who have a five-point lead after 15 rounds.
Barcelona is off this weekend because it's in the Club World Cup final in Japan, while Atletico can claim sole possession of first place when it plays at Malaga on Sunday.
Madrid's 1-0 loss to Villarreal was especially tough on Benitez because Barcelona had just been held by Deportivo La Coruna to a draw at the Camp Nou, so everything looked to be going Madrid's way.
"It's a league in which teams are going to drop points," Benitez said. "All the teams at the top are going to drop points. To challenge for the title you have to win a lot of games and these types of matches, with the favorable situation that existed before kickoff there for us to really lay down our title intentions."
Here are other things to know about the last round before the Christmas break.
VALLECANO'S STRUGGLES: Rayo Vallecano could be the perfect opponent for Real Madrid to get back on track in the league.
It arrives at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium coming off three consecutive league losses, only 18th in the standings, and with 14 points from four wins and two draws.
Vallecano advanced to the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, but it did it despite a 3-1 loss at Getafe.
"We need to find a way to take a step forward, and the only secret to that is to keep working hard," midfielder Raul Baena said. "We'll try to put together a great performance and we are going for the win against Madrid even though we know that it's going to be complicated. Just like them, we are not going through a good moment but that has to change at some point."
BENZEMA'S HOME: Despite the disappointment of being dropped by France because of the sex tape controversy back home, Karim Benzema will enter the match against Rayo Vallecano boosted by great performances at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
Benzema scored five times in Madrid's last two games at home, including a hat trick in the 8-0 win over Malmo in the Champions League.
He squandered a few good chances against Villarreal on Sunday, but has an opportunity to make up for them in front of the home fans.
ATLETICO IN FORM: Atletico Madrid is in top form, coming off five straight league wins. Another one against 16th-place Malaga on Sunday will give Diego Simeone's team a three-point advantage atop the standings heading into the break.
"We've been improving and that's important," Simeone said. "We have the respect of our rivals. We've been doing the same thing for the last four years and we are not going to change that."
Atletico has lost only twice, and not since a 1-0 defeat at Villarreal 10 games ago.
Malaga is unbeaten in three league matches, but it was eliminated in the Copa del Rey after a 1-0 home loss to second-division club Mirandes on Wednesday.