Maybe it was the red kits, but when I watched Real Madrid grind out a dreary 0-1 result, largely against the run of play and on the strength of an sublimely absurd (or absurdly sublime) backheel by Cristiano Ronaldo, I actually thought of Manchester United's title winning side from a year ago. I'm not the first to admit it, but obviously Madrid's ability to claim all three points in a match like Sunday's against Rayo is what separates this team from last year's.
The United comparison dawned on me last night because I saw that United team win a considerable number of matches last season during their title run-in where they were outplayed or needed just the right lucky bounce to prevail; in other words, it is matches like these that earn teams championships. Or perhaps more fittingly--teams who win championships must first develop ways to win difficult matches like these.
Yesterday was an aberration, a singularly ugly victory amidst the many striking examples of classy, explosive football exhibited by los blancos since the season began. I'm glad Real Madrid found a way to win a match that it frankly didn't really deserve and in adverse circumstances, which is something all championship caliber teams find ways to do.
The aforementioned Manchester United team were masters of this; for every Wayne Rooney bicycle kick match winner there was an inexplicable let-down or hiccup from a Wolves or a Blackpool squad that eased the Red Devils off the ropes and allowed them to escape with maximum points. I think a lot of it boiled down to psychology: one team was used to winning without fail, the other, being unprepared mentally, became uncertain and faltered. I saw this same grittiness and psychological resolve play out yesterday in the Campo de Futbol de Vallecas.
Every season ending in a trophy has a story that contains ghostly bounces, bad calls, narrow escapes and balls that rattle dumbly off the woodwork in stoppage time to add proportion to the glorious 6-2 thrashings and dominant 4-0 clean sheet clinics. I think yesterday can be viewed as evidence that Real Madrid now possess the knowledge and psychology necessary to win these matches.
I know there are still over two months remaining in the season, but I think yesterday's result also demonstrates that Jose Mourinho's men are starting to gather an inexorable Championship swagger as they ride the currents through the most crucial part of the season. I think this match was like the "banana skin" match that easily could've been, but wasn't.