La Liga’s top Spanish scorer may have played his way to Portugal

The messages started arriving, and they didn’t stop. “There were more than 100,” Rayo Vallecano attacker Alberto Bueno told El País. “And that’s not including Twitter. I couldn’t even keep track of the ones which were coming through on there.”

Manchester United’s Juan Mata wasn’t among those who sent a message, but he did phone Bueno, who he played with at Real Madrid many moons ago, to congratulate him on his 14-minute, four-goal haul in Rayo’s win over Levante at the end of February. And the goals didn’t stop there: One more came against Barcelona, two against Granada and another at Eibar.

In total, Bueno has now scored 16 league goals this season; only Real Madrid icon Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona’s domineering duo Lionel Messi and Neymar and Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca have scored more. No Spaniard has.

Vicente del Bosque must be watching. Bueno was asked after becoming the first Rayo player to score four goals in Spain’s top flight if the national team coach had sent him a message. “No,” was his one-word reply.

There may well have been one from Porto boss Julen Lopetegui, though. “Can’t wait to see you doing that next season in a blue and white shirt,” may have been the message.

That’s because, if we believe everything coming out in the Spanish and Portuguese press (even if we are advised not to), Bueno will be snacking on francesinha and sipping port by the Douro River by the time August rolls around. The Portuguese giants are said to have snared the Rayo star, though nothing has been officially confirmed.

It all makes perfect sense. Since Lopetegui, who previously managed Spain at under-19, under-20 and under-21 levels, took charge at the Estádio do Dragão last summer, there has been something of a Spanish revolution. Seven Spanish players have been signed, among them the impressive Óliver Torres and Cristian Tello, borrowed from Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, respectively. If you include Lopetegui’s coaching staff, there is now over 10 Spaniards on the club’s payroll. Thus far, things have gone going quite well: Porto faces Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals and is just three points behind league leaders Benfica, who it will play at the end of April.

But being Spanish isn’t the only thing that helped Bueno show up on Porto’s radar. He’s also got history with Lopetegui. During the 2008-09 season, Lopetegui was in charge of Real Madrid’s second string, Castilla, when Bueno scored 16 goals. A couple of years prior, he was the top scorer in a side featuring Mata and Gerard Piqué as Spain won the under-19 European Championships, scoring twice in the final against Scotland.

Before going any further, it should be noted that any article about Bueno needs a literal Spanish-English translation. For those unacquainted with Castellano, bueno means good, and back when he was playing for Lopetegui with dreams of being the next Raúl González Blanco, Alberto was indeed Bueno.

He’s not always been Albert Good, though. Since impressing at youth level for Spain and being asked to train with Madrid’s first team by then-head coach Fabio Capello, there have been times when he has looked more like Albert Average. Eventually, like other Real Madrid striking talents Álvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado, he realized he’d probably be better off away from Madrid and moved to Real Valladolid. A season later, he was on loan to Derby County.

Though next season he could be playing in the Champions League with Porto, back then he was struggling in the English Championship, his five goals in 29 appearances failing to meet the expectations of an English side bringing in a former Real Madrid striker. Two more seasons would follow at Valladolid, but the goals still did not. It wasn’t until his transfer to Rayo in 2013 and his link up with head coach Paco Jémez that he began to realize his potential.

In his El País interview, Blanco revealed he was never given “the confidence that I longed for” at Valladolid, but claimed that he never doubted his quality. Never. Now, thanks in parts to Jémez, but also to the rhythm that only scoring goals can bring, he has been able to find that quality.

Dealing in clichés, he said he’s rediscovered “a nose for a goal,” augmenting a package Bueno admits is not the quickest or the strongest. But he’s clearly discovered how to play to his strengths. He’s intelligent and has spent a lot of time over the last 18 months forcing his teammates and coaches to stay behind after training and to help him with his shooting.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Technically strong, Bueno can play as part of a front two or just behind a striker, and for 45 minutes on Wednesday night, he gave Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane a torrid time as Rayo threatened to stun the European champions — before eventually losing, of course. No it appears his strong performances have allowed Porto to sniff him out from across the border; or, perhaps, Lopetegui’s memory has been jogged.

“He is the top scoring Spaniard. The national team manager knows loads about football, so let him decide,” Jémez said when asked about Bueno’s chances of being called up by La Roja. “But it would be incredible for a Rayo player, any Rayo player, to be called up.”

The sad thing for Jémez is that Rayo has an awkward tradition of losing its top scorer at the end of each season. Last year it was Joaquin Larrivey to Celta Vigo; the year before, Piti swapped Vallecas for Granada; and then there was Michu’s bargain basement move to Swansea City nearly three years ago.

This year, it could be Bueno’s turn to flee. If Del Bosque does get round to sending that message, he probably won’t be calling up a Rayo player, but a Porto one.