After Real Madrid's 9-1 annihilation of Granada last weekend Carlo Ancelotti insisted he would take nine 1-0 victories until the end of the season - the points were more important than performances. A hard-fought 2-0 victory at Rayo Vallecano was therefore just what the doctor ordered as Madrid kept the title race alive with three points at Vallecas.
It was not pretty from Madrid, nor was it comprehensive. Indeed, a glance at the statistics shows that if Rayo were not unlucky, they at least caused Madrid plenty of problems on a tricky night in the Spanish capital. Madrid had beaten Rayo in every match since Madrid's third club had returned to the top flight and they eased to a 5-1 win at the Bernabeu earlier this season. David pushed Goliath close.
Rayo had 60 per cent of possession in a first half they finished on top and they carved out the better opportunities in front of goal. The hosts still edged the possession stakes after the break, although Madrid caught up, and Rayo eventually had 20 shots compared to Madrid's 17. Ancelotti and his men rarely come out on the wrong end of these kind of statistics.
The Vallecas club's success is no longer a secret. Paco Jemez's possession-based game has won plenty of admirers, not only because of the way Rayo play but because of the way they play no matter who they face. They will no ‘shut up shop' or ‘park the bus' if Barcelona or Madrid come to town. Their approach may not be a secret anymore but that does not make it much more comfortable to thwart.
Madrid found that out last season when they seemingly cruised into a 3-0 lead before a brace of goals from Jonathan Viera inside two second-half minutes left Madrid's lead hanging by a thread. On that night, Rayo carved out more chances to take a point from the match and were left wondering how they didn't.
"Rayo like to have possession of the ball and we understand the difficulty this match poses," said Ancelotti before the match. He also revealed last season's match was the first time he got angry with his team since joining the club after they almost threw the game away in the second half. The roles reversed this season in that the second-half showing won Madrid the points.
It was down to an improved performance and it was down to a higher intensity. That has been a buzzword for Ancelotti this season and it was missing from Madrid's performance in the first half. It was not helped by the intensity of Rayo's approach, that made life extremely difficult for the visitors.
The full-backs had a big part to play - for both teams and in both halves. In the first-half Nacho and Tito won the full-back battle. Not only were they disciplined at the back but they helped to form a tight midfield five that simply overpowered Madrid's middle three of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez. Carvajal and Marcelo, in the first half at least, were not as effective, at least in going forward.
That Rayo quintet pushed Madrid back and the position of former Castilla man Alberto Bueno in playing at the tip of that five forced Toni Kroos back and largely kept the German from playing and spreading balls about. The pressure Rayo exerted on Madrid, but particularly Kroos, helped nip the visitors' threat largely in the bud. There were exceptions, of course, but Rayo's game plan largely paid off.
It was a game plan that was always going to subside, however. Rayo were never going to keep that up for ninety minutes and they faded immediately after the break, and especially for the final half-hour. That was helped by Madrid upping their own gear in the second half and it was led by Kroos, who pushed the team further downfield. His position further forward also allowed Carvajal and Marcelo to push up and cause havoc moving forward down the flanks.
More of a license to roam forward particularly helped Carvajal, of course. Bale's pass set the defender away on the right and he beat his man for pace before pulling the ball back for Ronaldo's opener in the 68th minute. Ronaldo hit the headlines for scoring his 300th Madrid goal in all competitions but it was the blistering pace and quick-thinking of Carvajal that created the chance.
Marcelo, too, had more space to exploit on the left, especially as Rayo tired and opened up more after the goal, and he almost grabbed a goal of his own when he linked-up with Ronaldo but sent a stinging drive just wide of goal.
It was job done for Madrid but the performance, and the tactics, were a slight cause for concern ahead of next Tuesday's Champions League first-leg against Atletico. Madrid have struggled against teams with intensity and Diego Simeone's side will offer that in spades next week. The difference is they also have quality to convert some of the chances Rayo could not.
Madrid upped their levels after the break but they will have to play with those levels from the first whistles at the Calderon. Ancelotti will also have to be wary that Kroos, the man who makes Madrid tick, will be singled out as a man to mark and a man to push back. In pushing the German back, Madrid as a collective are pushed back, too.
Individually, there were plus points. James was again efficient, both tracking back and with the goal that all-but sealed the game. In the battle for a starting role with Isco it seems like the Colombian has it to lose. The fact that he, Kroos and Cristiano will be suspended for Saturday's game against Eibar means Ancelotti's team should pretty much pick itself this weekend.
Raphael Varane also produced the kind of performance that links him with the biggest clubs around Europe. He was dominant alongside Sergio Ramos and although Madrid came under plenty of pressure at the back, they managed to keep a clean sheet, just their second in seven games in all competitions.
That clean sheet was helped by one of Iker Casillas's best performances of the season, too. The Spain international has come under plenty of criticism this season, some of it deserved, but he made a number of important saves at Vallecas. Madrid will need their first-choice ‘keeper error-free if they are to achieve their targets this season and he at least showed that he can still be a top shot-stopper.
Ancelotti admitted after the match that he will need to change his tactics for next week's Champions League game. It took Madrid 45 minutes to get them right, or at least carry them out, against Rayo but they will not be afforded the same time for adjustment at the Calderon.