MADRID • Rafael Benitez could take charge of Real Madrid for the final time should the Spanish football giants fail to end an alarming slump to see off humble city rivals Rayo Vallecano tomorrow.
Real have lost three of their last five league games to slip five points behind leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, with Benitez rumoured to be one more defeat away from the sack.
However, it would take a monumental collapse for Real to fail to add to a run of 14 consecutive wins against Rayo stretching back over 15 years.
Barca's participation in the Club World Cup this weekend does at least allow Real to cut the gap on one of their title rivals before La Liga shuts down for 10 days over Christmas.
Moreover, Benitez could have a fully-fit squad to choose from as Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal stepped up their recovery from injury this week. Toni Kroos was surprisingly left out of the starting line-up for the 1-0 defeat at Villarreal last weekend amid rumours of a bust-up with the Spanish manager.
The German international also missed training on Thursday due to the flu but is expected to be fit should Benitez wish to recall him.
On Thursday, Real president Florentino Perez made it clear that Benitez and not Jose Mourinho, who was sacked by Chelsea that day, is the man to turn the club's fortunes around.
"No one can predict the future, but right now, he (Mourinho) will not be coming to Madrid," Perez said. "Benitez is capable of solving the problems we have. We are only contemplating that option.
"I have very good memories of Mourinho, he lifted our competitive level a lot. It wasn't a dark period for the club as with him we returned to where we belong."
Before returning to Chelsea two years ago, Mourinho won one La Liga title in his three years at Real. However, the Portuguese courted plenty of controversy in the Spanish capital and left during a dressing-room revolt led by Real's current captain Sergio Ramos.
Real have failed to win the Primera Liga title since Mourinho left.
Reports in Spain and France have suggested Real's youth-team coach and club legend Zinedine Zidane is best placed to take over from Benitez should results not improve in the coming weeks.
However, Perez suggested it is too early to hand the 43-year-old his first senior managerial role.
"He will be a great coach one day and will be the Madrid coach, but that time isn't today," Perez said.
"I repeat that Benitez was brought in to resolve a problem.
"Benitez is the solution, not the problem."
Real's problems appear minimal compared to Rayo's, who have slipped into the relegation zone after three consecutive defeats.
Paco Jemez's men did reach the last 16 of the Copa del Rey on away goals on Wednesday, despite losing 1-3 at Getafe.
"I would swop Madrid's crisis for ours," he said. "If we play like we did against Malaga or today (Wednesday), we can't even compete against a second-division team.
"If we play like we did against Villarreal, Espanyol, Las Palmas or Valencia, then yes we will be competitive (against Madrid)."