Sunday night in Vallecas, Madrid: The narrow Avenida Albufera, next to Rayo Vallecano's stadium, is teeming with activity. There are supporters scrambling to buy last-minute tickets, there are boozed up punters hovering outside the packed bars, having one last swig of their drinks before going into the ground.
There is the usual sight of locals, many sporting mullets and perms, the trademark stench of marijuana coming from youths huddled on street corners, plus the unusual sight of Japanese tourists, given that Vallecas, a working class suburb of Madrid, is mentioned in few guidebooks. The tourists are here, as indeed are many others, to watch Rayo, a club who have spent two thirds of their existence outside the top-flight, host Real Madrid. The chanting has already started and all is set for a brilliant atmosphere and an exciting game.
It is with some regret then, that the match never took place. A large section of the stadium's floodlights could not be turned on, and the match referee, despite the pleas of the players, decided the game could not go ahead. The 15,000 plus supporters were stuck outside the ground until an hour after the game was supposed to have kicked-off, to be told it had been cancelled.
The decision had been made long before the announcement was, and many had left even before the announcement had been made, finding out the news via friends or family watching the game on television or through their smartphones. The only people that made it into the ground were journalists and 300 or so Real Madrid fans, members of the Ultras Sur, who are always escorted into away grounds long before kick-off.
Rayo's president Raúl Martín Presa announced that the game had been sabotaged by 'football terrorists', as he called them, who allegedly cut the cables to the floodlight's electricity supply.
The media were quick to point the finger at the club's left-wing Ultras, the Bukaneros, believing the sabotage was their making and a protest of the club's "Dia del Club" policy, which forced season ticket holders to pay for their tickets for the game.
The group vehemently denied the accusation, mentioning the stadium's shoddy infrastructure and suggesting the torrential rain that fell a couple of hours before the game may have caused the problem, and this was the club's way of covering their backs. Whatever the true reason, the game was suspended and rearranged for the following day.
In contrast to the almost tangible anticipation of the day before, the atmosphere was noticeably flat on Monday inside the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas. The game kicked off at 19:45 local time, when a lot of people - at least, the lucky 75% of Spaniards who are still employed - are normally either at work or on their way home from work.
An equally large number would have already made plans for today, meaning that there were over 5,000 empty seats for the visit of the biggest team in Spain, a slightly better showing than what Getafe managed, but not by much.
Unfortunately the circumstances made for a flat game. Discounting their thrilling victory over Manchester City and the first half against Barcelona at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid have been far from their usual best this season, and produced a poor showing again in Vallecas. Fortunately for José Mourinho's side, Rayo Vallecano were generous opponents. With their whole squad assembled on a budget smaller than just Cristiano Ronaldo's annual salary, the hosts had little chance of getting much from this game in the first place, and any hope they did have was quickly dashed as they conceded a sloppy goal after 13 minutes. Ronaldo released Ángel Di María whose low cross sailed through an unorganised Rayo defence, which had conceded three goals from a similar position just the week before, and Karim Benzema made no mistake. Madrid failed to build on their advantage, however, and were fortunate to not concede after two clear chances in quick succession fell to Rayo, but first Iker Casillas and then Xabi Alonso came to the rescue.
Madrid were also grateful to the slow reactions of Leo Baptistao, who was unexpectedly presented with a back-pass by Alvaro Arbeloa, which had the Brazilian reacted quicker to, would surely have resulted in an equaliser. Cristiano Ronaldo doubled Madrid's lead from the penalty spot but then missed an open goal which summed up a poor night for the Portuguese, who was constantly taunted by the Rayo fans for saying he was "sad" in an interview three weeks ago. In fact, none of Madrid's 'galacticos' were the key men on this potentially tricky evening, with the plaudits being reserved for the industrious workers: Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Michael Essien. Mourinho, who after Madrid's 1-0 defeat to Sevilla last Saturday declared he did not have a team, acknowledged that against Rayo "the team looked like a team once again", but admitted "we could have played better".
While Mourinho has cause for concern with Gonzalo Higuaín's recent impotence in front of goal and a general lack of spark from his creative players, he will be pleased his side managed to win without playing well. Unfortunately, it is a habit Barcelona seem to have perfected too. They beat Granada 2-0 on Saturday, scoring both goals in the remaining five minutes, and are eight points clear of Madrid, just five games into the season.
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