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Jaime Mata - the one that got away (18th January, 2018)

A few months ago, Rayo fans woke up to this:

That was a bittersweet moment - pride for a Rayista who was going to succeed at M√°laga, but bitterness at the club for letting him go for free and not tying him down early enough.

Midfielder Pablo Clavería slipped through the cracks. He wasn't renewed, and got tired of waiting - a depressingly normal situation for a smaller, cash-strapped club.

This is the story of another player who slipped through.

Like Pablo, he has a powerful shot on him. Unlike Pablo, it's key to his job. The striker made his name in his hometown of Madrid in the Tercera, after rising through the ranks of Gal√°ctico Pegaso. He would play for the reserves in 2007, before playing for the senior team during the 2008-09 campaign.

During the 2009-10 campaign, economic hardship allowed Rayo Vallecano's B team to swoop in, and in December 2009 the 21-year-old signed for the reserves and was immediately loaned to Socu√©llamos in the same level - the Madrid side's coach, Miguel √Āngel Gal√°n, actually trained the player at Pegaso.

Mata was subsequently loaned to fellow league team Móstoles for the 2010-11 campaign, where he broke out, scoring 25 goals and convincing Rayo to incorporate him in their B team in the Segunda B. However, his nine goals that season didn't convince Rayo to keep hold of him.



The mistake was swiftly and severely punished - in the first week of July 2012 Segunda B side Lleida Esportiu swooped in, and his rise from there has only been upward. Two seasons in the Segunda B led to a combined 29 league goals, and two attempts at the promotion playoffs - which was enough to convince Segunda side Girona to give him a shot at professional football.

The 26-year-old Segunda B hotshot went on to become a Segunda mainstay. His two-year contract came and went, with 19 league goals between 2014 and 2016, not to mention two more shots at the promotion playoffs. Those performances meant that he wasn't short of any suitors, and earned a move to fellow league side Real Valladolid.

The 2016-17 campaign saw Mata score just five goals in a season where he was third choice striker behind Ra√ļl de Tom√°s and Juan Villar (14 and 10 goals respectively). However, this season, with Ra√ļl de Tom√°s at Rayo and Juan Villar at Tenerife, Mata has become Segunda's unstoppable force, having scored a mind-boggling 19 goals in 22 appearances so far. Not only is he the Segunda's top scorer, he is ahead of everyone else by a mile - in second place is C√≥rdoba's Sergi Guardiola with a paltry 12 goals.

It's not like he's running past defenders, or bullying opponents with sheer strength. He is everything Rayo want in a striker - intelligent, good on the ball, hardworking. And Rayo don't plan on making that mistake again - just recently, Rayo renewed the contract of Sergio Moreno, who is the top scorer in Group 5 in the División de Honor, a group that includes teams such as Real Madrid.

But Jaime Mata will, sadly, always be one of those players who got away.

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He was short. Very short. At 5'3", the left winger sometimes played in an over-sized shirt.

The ball never left his feet. His feet were tiny but they had magic. A dizzying array of body feints, close control, direction changes and sheer speed, often resembling a roller-coaster, left opposition defenders outwitted. And yes - sometimes, he frustrated. Sometimes, he was irregular.

But when he turned up, the world was at his feet.

If Juan Quero plays against Real Madrid he'll be playing against the club that let him go. The club that didn't think he had it in him to become a La Liga player.

The club that was wrong. Very, very wrong - he went fr…