What began with exhilaration ended in desperation. The opening minutes promised so much, yet the game delivered so very little. As soon as Real Madrid were reduced to ten men in the first half, coach José Mourinho handed over possession to his opponent, abandoned all thought of entertaining a soaked Bernabéu crowd, and settled for ambitionless pragmatism and ensuring that the points remained safe. 73 interminable minutes of useless Rayo domination then ensued. They ended happily, but offered little cause for cheer.
The match began with the refreshing news that youth product Álvaro Morata would start. His presence alone replenished any shortage in motivation that might have affected the home side. Among other things, that is what the club's youth system is there for: to generate a feeling of excitement, to make a game special when it appears not to be. To make La Liga interesting again when it unquestionably no longer is. And, two minutes in, Kaká led a Madrid counter-attack which Morata finished from Mesut Özil's pass. Real were a goal up, and the young striker had every reason to celebrate wildly as he slid on his knees, fists clenched.
Five minutes later, an opportunity fell to Kaká, a player reborn, a dashing greyhound with the bit firmly between his teeth. 11 more minutes passed, and Madrid stretched their lead. Özil drifted a free-kick into the penalty box, and Ramos held off Javi Fuego to head into the net. At this point, Rayo plainly feared a glut of goals, all for the hosts. The bravery which the visitors had spoken of in the run-up to the match seemed to be turning rapidly into unbridled terror.
However, there is one factor in a game which one can never legislate for: the referee. And José Luis Paradas Romero is an official who feels continually threatened, blowing his whistle in pure self-defence. To make matters worse, his fear then becomes entangled with vanity. Aware that every time he shows a card the cameras focus on him, Paradas has a tendency to pose with his arm in the air like an equestrian statue (but without the horse). There can be no other reason for his decision to show Ramos his first yellow card; the defender did nothing except fight for possession. A minute later, the Spain international blocked a José Manuel Casado cross with his arms, and immediately knew what was coming. He barely mustered a word of protest, and trudged off to the dressing room. Someone ought to explain to referees the difference between consciously intercepting a pass and simply being hit by it.
For Real, the sending-off did not appear to be terminal to their game plan. Yet the incident completely changed the team's approach: from playing with the ball to playing with the scoreboard, from having fun to doing sums. Mourinho ordered his players to drop back and Rayo went on to dominate the rest of the encounter, first unbelievably then embarrassingly. And it got worse. In the 26th minute, the Portuguese coach withdrew Morata and brought on Raúl Albiol.
There is no tactical justification for such a show of insensitivity towards the youngster, who did everything right in the time he was given. If Real cannot give Rayo a game with ten men, something is wrong. With such a numerical difference between the clubs' budgets, they should be able to overcome such a numerical difference on the field. At least until half time, when the substitution of Morata would not have been quite so humiliating.
Things got no better. The outfit from Vallecas continued to dominate, showing just how the Bernabéu has changed. Much of the home support appear to share Mourinho's mindset: the result justifies all, even giving possession to Rayo, even killing the game. At the same time, it must have been a real honour for 'el franjirojo': after all, Madrid had done the same against the mighty Bayern Munich.
Minute after minute of stale football followed, until Roberto Trashorras finally saw a magnificent chance to reduce the deficit at the end of the first half. But he blazed over, straining under the weight of responsibility. In this instant, it became clear that Rayo would need ten opportunities to convert just one.
In the second half, the only issue of relevance was the tick-tock of the clock. Again and again, Paco Jémez's men approached the Madrid goal; but rather than spurring the visitors on, it only compounded their frustration. Fabio Coentrao appeared to concede a penalty which would have allowed Rayo to score, but the referee was umoved.
The rest of the encounter passed by amid appeals for the referee to issue more cards, as if victory was gained not by scoring goals but by provoking the next dismissal. Against this backdrop, the game was brought to a close. No Morata, no possession and no football. And not one iota of glory. Three points, they may be. But what a miserable three points.