Real Madrid's 2-0 victory over Rayo in the Vallecas neighborhood of Madrid on Wednesday night was worthy of the hoariest of football clichés: it really was a game of two halves. Paco Jemez's Rayo went at the visitors from the off and played exactly as a side with four wins from their previous five matches and no relegation concerns would be expected to: With a nothing to lose attitude.
Jemez is something of a cult figure in Spanish football. The Rayo boss has openly admitted he'd like to coach Spain, or in the Premier League, and there is little reason why he shouldn't aspire to such heights with his team currently sitting in ninth place.
Ahead of the 2014-15 season, Rayo signed 21 players and shipped out 24, spending €500,000 and getting €350,000 back. But despite a gulf in financial clout the home side gave Real a truly bruising opening 45 minutes, which produced 11 shots to the visitor's four, seven corners to zero and 59 percent of possession.
Still, Real recovered some of their swagger from Sunday's annihilation of Granada after the break to earn three crucial points in the La Liga title race. But victory came at a cost: Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos all picked up cautions and will be suspended for the Eibar match at the weekend.
However, the Portuguese star can content himself with not only hauling his side from the brink in Vallecas but also in racking up his 300th goal for Real Madrid in all competitions -- quite the achievement in just under six seasons at the Bernabeu.
Player Ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Iker Casillas, 7 -- A solid performance from the captain, who got down well to tip an Alberto Bueno strike around the post, made a good reaction save when the ball emerged through a melee of players and made late stops from Manucho and Nacho Martinez. Casillas was pretty assured with the ball at his feet as well, which is something of a rarity, besides a late free-kick that he spooned to the Rayo forward line.
DF Dani Carvajal, 7 -- Carvajal has more than most to play for as the season reaches the business end, with Real's summer business already in full flow. The shadow of incoming right back Danilo from Porto looms large, but the diminutive Carvajal continues to produce the goods.
Great work down the right led to assisting Ronaldo on a cross. It wasn't so much an assist as what the Spanish call medio-gol. Carvajal had a tough opponent in Rayo winger Adrian Embarba but held his ground for the most part.
DF Raphael Varane, 5 -- Varane struggled to contain the physicality of Manucho and looked a little lost against Rayo's sustained first half attack. The France defender seems to be unsure of his Bernabeu future, but performances like Wednesday's might take that decision out of his hands unless Zinedine Zidane picks up the first team reins.
He's good enough to keep Nacho out of the team, but how will he fare if Real splash out on a bona fide international calibre centre half this summer? Pepe's imminent return will shelve that uncomfortable question for the time being.
DF Sergio Ramos. 8 -- Ramos got in the way of everything Rayo threw at Real in the first half and curbed his natural instinct to get forward when a goal is required to shield his defensive partner. When Rayo tried a through ball, the Sevillan's boot was on the end of it. When a cross came in, Ramos' head met it. A colossal display from the vice-captain.
DF Marcelo, 6 -- The Brazilian livewire probed and pushed forward as he always does but the lack of unity between the lines rendered most of his efforts redundant. Marcelo went close in the second half with a rasping shot and teed up James Rodriguez with a cute ball shortly afterwards but the Colombian midfielder skied his shot. Not a great performance from the left back, but one that was conditioned by the shape of the team.
MF Toni Kroos, 6 -- Kroos kept it fairly simple with Rayo's extra body in midfield putting plenty of pressure on Real's anchorman. The result was that he had little time to work in tandem with Luka Modric, leaving the front line a little isolated in the first half.
It took the Germany international 13 matches to pick up his first yellow card in a white shirt, and he has incurred four more in the same number of matches since then. There's only so much you can do in Kroos' position and he'll be grateful for an evening off on Saturday after picking up the most recent of those for protesting.
MF Luka Modric, 6 -- The Croatian was lively as always, constantly looking for a pass to release the forward line. But while full of running, Modric was left short of ideas as the glue that usually binds his partnership with Kroos turned to Blu-Tack: the disjointed nature of Real's midfield in Vallecas wasn't his fault, but Modric came out looking the weaker link as a direct result.
MF James Rodriguez, 8 -- Rodriguez shouldered the responsibility of playing between the midfield and the front three, and provided some sumptuous deliveries. The Colombia international has eased seamlessly back into the side and Ancelotti's decision to omit Isco was justified. A wonderful curled effort put the game beyond Rayo and his through ball for Ronaldo was an absolute gem. Alongside Ramos, Rodriguez was Real's best player on the night.
FW Gareth Bale, 7 -- Bale's volleyed strike was one for the scrapbook, but rightly adjudged offside. The Wales winger was a surprise inclusion after reports of a foot injury vied with Lionel Messi's similar injury for the headlines in the run-up to the game, but Ancelotti was on target again in picking his number 11. A diving header almost opened the scoring after the restart and Bale went close with a shot across David Cobeno's goal a few minutes later. By far the most consistently dangerous of the front three.
FW Karim Benzema, 5.5 -- Benzema was fairly anonymous in the first half but almost picked Rayo's pocket when he read a Gael Kakuta back pass that fell short at Cobenos' feet. The France striker managed a couple of shots and certainly didn't lack effort, but he did want for service.
FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 7 -- Ronaldo again found the net in Vallecas, although it wasn't quite as good as this. The Portuguese was rightly aggrieved by a bizarre yellow card received for simulation when it appeared that he simply slipped and was subsequently taken out by Antonio Amaya's momentum.
Neither player acted with intent and Ancelotti joined Ronaldo in haranguing the officials after the final whistle. In any case, when Real needed a goal Ronaldo was there to provide it with his 37th of the season, and his 300th for the club in all competitions. He'll be seething from the stands on Saturday though.
MF Isco, 6 -- On for Benzema with 20 minutes to play, Isco had a shot from Bale's cross but placed it straight at Cobeno and played a poor ball when he could have released Ronaldo. A low-key cameo from the Malagan magician.
FW Javier Hernandez, NR -- The Mexico striker had time to pull a pass back when he might have fancied a shot, but little else.
DF Nacho, NR -- On for Rodriguez, the fourth choice central defender didn't have time to touch the ball at all.